What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to doing work that matters?
A lot of people say money. As in, a lack of money.
A lack of money can certainly be an obstacle. But it can also be an excuse.
It’s awesome to have the funds we need to give us the time and other resources that will help us do work that matters. But if we say we can’t do anything meaningful because it’s not our full-time job, that’s fear talking.
Now, there are cases where money truly is a debilitating issue. I have friends and family members who just can’t seem to get ahead — at times they feel as if they’re drowning. Money problems can be extremely demotivating, crippling, and depressing.
However, right now I want to talk about those who see money as their biggest challenge to doing work that matters and yet have never stopped to consider if there are alternatives. Or perhaps you see the paycheck as a validation of the work you’re doing — you need the promise of income as a pat on the back that you’re doing something valuable.
But the truth is…
Money is a tool, not a validation
You with money may have an advantage over you without money, but it’s not a guarantee. At the end of the day, what money does is buy opportunity.
Opportunity of time: if you had a million dollars in the bank to pay all your monthly living expenses and to pay someone else to handle all the menial tasks of your life, then you could spend all your time working on your craft. But even if you had all the time in the world, it doesn’t guarantee you’d choose to do meaningful work.
Opportunity of collaboration and community: if you had a million dollars, you could hire a team to work with. But even with a hundred million, there’s no guarantee that you’d be able to hire an all-star staff of hard-working, kind, fun, brilliant, self-starters who all get along.
Opportunity of networking: if you had a million dollars, people might invite you to their fancy dinners, and ask you to collaborate with them. But even if so, there’s no guarantee that the right people will notice you
Opportunity of research and discovery: if you had a million dollars you could buy all the books you need to learn up on a subject, travel somewhere to a conference to meet new people and learn new things, and more.
Opportunity to use better tools: if you had a million dollars you could buy the nicest camera, the fastest computer, the highest quality paint brushes. But even then, there’s no guarantee that the tools at your disposal would empower you do to work that matters.
If money is your biggest challenge to doing your best creative work, ask yourself what advantage or opportunity it is that you’re looking to money to solve. Once you figure that out, ask yourself if there’s a different solution to your challenge.
If you say you need money so you can have more time to do the work that matters to you, and yet you’re watching an hour of TV every day, then money’s not the first problem. How you’re spending your time is.
If you say you need money to afford the right tools, yet you go out to eat every day and have a monthly car payment, perhaps you should assess your spending and budgeting.
The real obstacles are fear and not being willing to sacrifice
I spent four years writing shawnblanc.net during evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks before I was able to quit my job and take the website full time. Jason Kottke had been writing online for 7 years before he quit his job to take kottke.org full-time. Myke Hurley spent four years podcasting before he was able to take his passion full-time. John Gruber wrote Daring Fireball on the side for 4 years before making it his full-time gig.
In short, it takes time — years, usually — before doing the work you love can get to a point where it is also the work that pays the bills. But sometimes, it never pays the bills.
Are you willing to show up every day for 4 years?
Talking to a friend about this just this morning, he said that he doesn’t think it’s about money at all — it’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice to do the work they love. People don’t want to give up all the things they need to give up, so instead they place the burden of action on having more money.
* * *
In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna writes that there are four obstacles to doing our most important work: Money, Time, Space, and Vulnerability.
While money, time, and space are the reasons given most often for not choosing Must, there’s another fear that’s far scarier and spoon about much less.
Choosing Must means that you have to confront some very big fears. It will make you feel vulnerable.
Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. As anyone who writes, draws, or takes pictures on a regular basis can tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be hard and frightful.
I don’t want to minimize how helpful it can be to have a financial safety net in place, nor how frightening it can be when you’re barely scraping by. I’ve been in debt, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck even though I didn’t have to, I’ve survived on less than minimum wage, and I’ve had enough money to take a year off if I wanted. In all those seasons, there were still challenges and fears that I had to press through in order to do work that mattered.
Elle Luna also writes: “It is here, standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, that we feel the enormous reality of our fears, and this is the moment when many of us decide against following our intuition, turning away from that place where nothing is guaranteed, nothing is known, and everything is possible.”
With all kindness and tenderness, let me challenge you: If it’s mostly about the money, then perhaps it’s not about doing your best creative work after all. If you see money as your biggest challenge, perhaps you’re not being honest with yourself.
Does this sound familiar? You pull your iPhone out to check the time, and the next thing you know you’ve been scrolling through Twitter for 6 minutes and now you’re reading about the migration patterns of cats. You don’t even like cats.
I’ve worn a wristwatch for years. For one, I like to know what time it is. But also, wearing a watch is an excellent solution to passively checking Twitter and Instagram when all I wanted to know was the time.
Last year I wrote an article in praise of my analog watch. In short it was about how my analog watch does one thing well: tell time.
Now, my affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I’m against the concept of the smartwatch. But after 8 years of having an iPhone within arm’s reach, my experience has taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information at your fingertips is almost always paired with the reality of distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.
Having the Internet in your pocket isn’t always roses and ice cream.
* * *
Naturally, I pre-ordered my Apple Watch the morning it went on sale. The little critter arrived just over a week ago.
As a gadget geek, I think Apple Watch is awesome. It looks great, it has some gorgeous watch faces, the fitness tracking and goals are fantastic and healthily addictive, and it pairs so well with my iPhone.
But just because it’s an awesome and fun gadget doesn’t guarantee it’s helpfulness. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, one of the reasons I wear a watch is so I can check the time without using my iPhone.
Not to be all philosophical, but one of the big question that’s been looming in my mind regarding Apple Watch is this: For those who want to spend less time staring at their iPhone, will Apple Watch make that easier?
After a week — which, admittedly, is a very short amount of time — my answer to the above question is yes: Apple Watch makes it easier to leave my iPhone alone.
Apple Watch fits, appropriately, right between a smartphone and a dumb watch. Apple Watch is certainly more feature-rich and “connected” than my analog watches ever were, yet it’s not anywhere near an “iPhone 2.0” type of product.
In other words, Apple Watch is just powerful enough to be useful and fun, but not so powerful that it’s distracting or frustrating.
Apple Watch certainly could be distracting if you let it. But that’s easily avoided by not installing too many apps or allowing too many types of incoming notifications. Where Watch differs from iPhone is that the former is not very good at being a passive entertainment device.
While you can install apps such as Instagram and Twitterrific on your Watch, using them is like reading the news on a postage stamp. Doable but not delightful.
Just Smart Enough
For me, there are three things that make Apple Watch great so far: Notifications that matter, activity tracking, and Complications.
On my phone I already get only the most sacred of notifications: text messages, Twitter DMs, Slack Mentions and PMs, emails from VIPs, event reminders, Reminder reminders, new calendar events added to my shared calendars, Vigil alerts, Dark Sky weather alerts.
It sounds like a lot when listed out all at once, but aside from text messages, the vast majority of those things rarely ever fire. In fact, I take pride in how infrequently my iPhone beeps or buzzes.
And on my watch, I get tapped even less: text messages, event reminders, and Dark Sky weather alerts only.
We’ll see how this pans out over time, but so far getting just these few types of notifications on my wrist have proven to be immensely helpful and not the least bit annoying.
And using the Watch for messages is usually great. For the vast majority of the friends and family whom I text message with throughout the day, we communicate with emojis and short quips — something the Watch is perfectly suited for.
The activity tracking has is great. Too great, perhaps…
Totally waiting until after I go to sleep to install Watch OS 1.0.1. Don’t want to fall behind in steps counted and calories burned.— Shawn Blanc (@shawnblanc) May 19, 2015
Getting those rings filled every day has become so compelling. It’s too soon to tell if it’s simply the fun of a new “game” that will soon wear off, or if the awareness of my activity along with the daily goals will bring about an improvement in my healthy activity and behavior.
As for the Watch face, I’ve settled in on Utility. I have the detail dialed down to the most simple possible. And I’ve three complications set up: activity rings in the upper left corner, current temperature in the upper right corner, and day + date on the face. Each morning I change the accent color, usually to match my shirt, because why not?
At a glance I can see the time and the current temp, which is so nice. I’m getting ready to go for a run, should I plan to go to the gym or is it nice enough to run outside? … We’re about to load the kids up in the car, do they need jackets right now?
I have a secondary version my Utility watch face saved that has the timer complication at the bottom center. When grilling (which we do about 3 times a week now that the weather is warming up), it is great to have the timer just one tap away on my wrist.
Complications are invaluable, and the delta between pulling out your phone to check your calendar, or the weather, versus looking at your wrist is massive.
Agreed. It’s the complications and the basic notifications that make Apple Watch just smart enough. Taking a little bit of time to set up what I do and don’t want on my watch has already paid dividends.
There is still much to be improved about the Watch’s core functionality (such as improvements with Siri dictation (editing, anyone?), and 3rd-party apps that don’t have to round trip to the iPhone). However, my first impression of the Apple Watch has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s attractive, useful, and, most of all, fun.
On this week’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly, I seek to define what “Your Best Creative Work” actually means.
It’s a phrase I’ve been thinking and talking about for years. Does it only relate to “artsy” stuff? I don’t think so.
* * *
Here’s a picture of someone doing her best creative work:
She shows up every day. When it’s easy and when it’s hard. It doesn’t matter. She is committed.
This is something only she can do. Yet even still, it might not all work out as planned. There is no clear path about comes next. There is a lot of guessing. There is fear.
Some days the work is so much harder than others. Some days everything comes together and it’s amazing. At the end of the day, it’s always rewarding.
She is telling a story. Every day she is trying to connect with others. Her work is emotional. Relational. There is learning. Teaching. Guessing. Loving. She is a mother.
* * *
When we talk about “doing our best creative work”, it’s easy to define creativity as “artsy”. Writing. Designing. Taking photographs. But creative work happens in a variety of forms.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a project manager, and he very much views his work as creative. Creating a spreadsheet to analyze data — that is a form of creativity, and it should be validated as creative. The way a mother or father raises their children and the tactics they deploy. The choices we make as freelancers, small-business owners, founders, or CEOs. It’s all creative
The scope of creativity and meaningful work goes far beyond art.
Any degree of freedom you use to do your work means you have a choice about how you go about it. And that is creativity. You’ve been given the gift of choice, and you can use that to give back and do work that matters.
* * *
What do you think about when you think about art and creativity?
I think about emotions. Fear, doubt, joy, happiness, love, and honesty.
I think about telling a story. Encouraging, inspiring, educating, and entertaining others.
I think about people. Relationships and connecting.
* * *
Doing my best creative work is an amalgamation of both doing work that matters and also taking joy in the journey.
Meaningful work, work that matters, is something that I have to do. I am compelled to do it. If it doesn’t work out, if nobody likes it, if I never make a dollar, that’s unfortunate. But I still had to do it. And so, if it didn’t work out or it didn’t make a dollar, I have to figure out how to keep doing it better. Meaningful work is also something which I hope will make the lives of other people better. Either by entertaining them, educating them, or helping them in their journey.
Having joy in the journey is just that. Having fun. Pursuing “mastery”. Being present in the moment. Getting in the zone. Creating without inhibition. Trusting your gut.
Put these two together, and boom. You’ve got yourself a recipe for your best creative work.
When you define your best creative work like this, it changes everything. Suddenly it’s less about the quality of art you produce and it’s more about being valuable, meaningful, and honest.
And you realize that your best creative work is part of every area of your life: work, family, rest, personal life, etc.
Doing your best creative work every day is a choice. You get to choose to do work that matters.
I try to make that choice when I’m at my keyboard, when I’m on a date with my wife, when I have half an hour of quiet alone time, and when I’m playing catch in the back yard with my two boys. In those moments, it’s not about the context. Art. Relationships. Business. Each one is a chance to choose to be honest, true, vulnerable, and personal.
Yesterday on Twitter I asked folks what challenges they face when it comes to doing meaningful work.
These are some of the answers I got back:
Fear that I’m too late.
Fear that my work won’t be good enough.
Fear that my work will be rejected.
Fear of unworthiness.
Giving in to distractions to escape / pacify the fear.
Finding something that I feel is meaningful to work on.
Stuck in meetings, leaving no time to do any meaningful work.
Having to put out fires and check inboxes, leaving no time or energy to do meaningful work.
Am I even capable or equipped to do meaningful work? If it’s out there, do I even recognize it?
Moving too fast; rushing into projects and ideas.
Holding back; afraid of success and the necessary changes it would bring.
Lack of financial resources. Having to spend time doing non-important work in order to pay the bills.
Spending too much time doing meaningless, trivial stuff.
Frustrated by my capacity. I could and should be doing more, and the days feel as if they slip away.
There are so many distractions. I have a hard time keeping focused.
Fear that those I look up to won’t respect the work I do.
Getting others around me to be motivated and make change.
The fight to stay creative is real.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes that “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity”, or, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” is sure to elicit resistance.
Resistance comes in all shapes and sizes: Fear, distractions, diversions, interruptions, procrastination, hesitancy, shame, lethargy, doubt, et al.
In my experience, the greatest challenges to doing work that matters are these:
- Lack of clarity: Do you even know what meaningful, important work looks like and how to do it?
- Not thirsty enough: Not willing and eager to learn, grow, evaluate, try new things, and take risks.
- Fear: In all shapes and sizes, as listed above.
- Distractions (and diversions): which are both internal and external.
- Inconsistency: not willing to show up every day.
Therefore, if you want to do work that matters, this is what you need:
Where grit is tenacity. Work ethic. Stubbornness. It’s the willingness to press through your fear, overcome the your distractions, and show up every day even when it’s hard.
If you’re reading this, you’re thirsty. You’ve got grit, too. Probably more than you think.
But do you have clarity? Do you know what your meaningful, important work looks like? And if so, do you know what you need to do to make it happen?
Clarity is at the foundation of meaningful work and meaningful productivity. We need clarity about who we are, our values, our vision for life, what’s important, and what we can do every day to stay steady in our aim of doing our best creative work.
If you know what you want (clarity) and you’re motivated to go after it (thirst), then oftentimes the grit takes care of itself. Fear is less likely to hold you back. Distractions suddenly aren’t so distracting.
* * *
You are capable of doing work that matters. We all have fears. We all have opportunities for distractions and diversions. We all have to choose to show up every day. You won’t find someone doing meaningful work for the long haul who doesn’t have at least some measure each of clarity, thirst, and grit.
P.S. As you may know, I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. The Focus Course solves the very issues I’ve written about in this post. Well, mostly. While I can help you with clarity and grit, thirst, I’m afraid, is all up to you.
The Course is on track to launch in the late June! This week we are recording the 20 videos that will be part of the course (see below). The end is in sight and I am so excited to share this with you!
A few days ago I got an email from Ross Kimes who was a member of the Pilot course. He wrote to tell me about how the Pilot version Focus Course helped him, and with his permission I’ve shared it here for you.
On this week’s episode of The Weekly Briefly I talk about how thirsty we are to do meaningful work. It takes more than just showing up every day to do our best creative work. And if we focus too much on just the output we are doing (without taking time to learn and grow) then it can easily lead to burnout.
This week’s show is sponsored by Wired In: Eliminate Distractions. Stay focused. Get a custom, wireless, LED ‘Busy’ sign from Wired In.
And below is a transcript of the episode for those who prefer to read.
Show Notes and Transcript
I used to hate to read. I didn’t think I hated it, but I did.
I never wanted to read. I never enjoyed it. Reading felt like a waste of time. Unless I was on vacation. But reading during work hours? No way.
Four years ago I had no idea what I was doing. When I first started writing shawnblanc.net full-time, I was clueless and afraid.
In the words of Ray Bradbury, “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Those early years of writing this site were difficult. They were fun, to be sure, but they were hurried. I held on to this sense that I had to keep up with the pace of the internet. And on top of that, I didn’t know what sort of writer I wanted to be or what sort of things I wanted to publish on the site. So I was running around in a hurry to publish who knows what.
Nearly all my attention was focused on publishing.
Frequency (not consistency). That was my primary measure of success. Or, at least, that’s what I assumed all the paying members wanted: more published words every day.
They tell you to ship early and ship often. As a writer, shipping means getting your words onto the page and then getting them out there into the world.
My focus was so intent on the frequency of my publishing that I rarely felt liberty to do anything that took me away from getting at least one or two links up every day. This was folly.
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey writes about what he calls “Sharpening the Saw”.
We often get so busy “sawing” (producing results) that we forget to “sharpen our saw” (maintain or increase our capacity to produce results in the future). We may neglect to exercise, or fail to develop key relationships. We may not be clear about what’s important and meaningful to us. If we fail to build our personal capacity in these areas, we quickly become “dulled,” and worn out from the imbalance. We’re unable to move forward as effectively in the other roles of our lives.
Maintaining and increasing our capacity is foundational for success in every area of our life. In short, don’t stop learning; don’t stop training.
But I rarely ever took time to read and study. I never took mid-day breaks. Even though I could set my own schedule, I usually worked evenings and weekends just to keep up frequency (not because I was working on something specific that had me motivated).
My intense focus on frequency burned me out. Many times. By the grace of God, I didn’t quit.
Here’s an entry I wrote in my Day One almost two years ago:
What do you do when you look at the work you’ve been doing for the past day or week or month and you think, this sucks? I don’t know if there’s an answer or not for getting past crappy work, but I bet you a sandwich the answer probably involves doing more crappy work.
Do as much as you can. Keep writing. Keep making. Write 1,000 crappy words every day. Then put them in a drawer and pretend they don’t exist lest you get depressed.
In my years of writing and doing creative-y stuff, I’ve discovered the difference between burnout and frustration. Between immaturity and fear.
Doing our best creative work every day is a hard and frightful task. But we’re in it for the long haul. We have to remember that there is a lot more to it than merely showing up to do the work.
Showing up to do the work is the brave and noble part of the endeavor. It’s what all the books and motivational posters focus on. And for good reason: if we don’t show up, well then, we’re not actually doing the work.
But let us not get so busy producing that we forget to maintain or increase our capacity to keep producing results.
For me, there were a lot of reasons I hated the idea of learning and improving in my “early years” as a writer. (I put “early years” in quotes because I’ve been a full-time writer for all of 4 years now. I’ve still got about 46 years to go before I’m out of the “early years”. But, the reasons I despised learning in those days were because:)
- I was focused on the new and the now.
- I cared too much about my site’s stats.
- I thought I needed to keep up with the speed of the Internet in order to be interesting and relevant.
- I didn’t have a long-term goal for any of my writing endeavors, other than to write about what was interesting to me today.
This is not to say that the work I was doing was bad, or wrong. Not at all. I’m exceedingly proud of the links and articles I have published here over the years. But where I needed change was in the foundation from which my writing grew.
I’m still as nerdy about apps and gadgets as I always was. Over the years, however, I’ve found a different pace that works better for me. Partly necessitated by becoming a dad.
I don’t want any of my websites to publish at the speed of the Internet. Because it is impossible to keep up with unless you neglect everything else in your life. And even then, you can only keep up with a tiny sliver of the real-time Web. It can be fun for a while, but it’s not healthy or sustainable for anyone who wants to do meaningful work for decades.
Far more valuable to me than speed and ”First!” are things such as thoughtfulness, whimsy, helpfulness, and long-term relevancy. In my experience, many of these values hide themselves from environments where urgency is the dominant motivational factor.
Who can be thoughtful when they’re in a rush?
Hurry up and be thoughtful! Hurry up and be clever! Hurry up and be helpful! Hurry up, but don’t mess up!
For me, I find much more satisfaction creating something with a long-tail of relevancy than a momentary flash in the pan. And it’s out of this contentment to publish at a slower frequency that I re-discovered the value of learning.
* * *
The value of learning
Would you scoff at the farmer who spends time keeping his tools in good working condition? Would you scoff at the painter who spends time cleaning her brushes? What about the scientist who spends time doing research and experimenting? Or the athlete who practices?
Of course not.
There is a strong connection between practicing and learning and then doing.
You must have both. Some people spend their whole life in school, never creating anything on their own. Others create, do the work, but think that’s the only thing that matters.
I know I fell into that latter group. All my focus was on making and doing and publishing. So much so that I despised learning and researching and giving my mind time to rest and think.
Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Cheeck-sent-me-hai—lee) is a noted psychologist, and the architect the notion called Flow.
Csikszentmihalyi’s theory is that people are happiest when they are in a state of Flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
Finding flow in our everyday lives is important for several reasons.
- It increases our happiness
- It gives us a focus on effectiveness
- It’s where we do our best creative work
- It’s how we make progress
- It helps us to learn new skills
However, finding flow can be challenging; it requires more activation energy. It’s much easier to just turn on the television than it is to get out the paint brushes and a new canvas and change into our artist’s painting clothes. But the latter is where we are more likely to get in the zone, to become lost in our work.
But here’s what I’m getting at: The experience of flow acts as a magnet for learning.
When we are working on something that is challenging to us and which requires the highest level of our skills, then we want to learn. Not only do we learn in the midst of our work, but our work drives our desire to learn more.
And learning — or, as Stephen Covey puts it: “sharpening the saw” — is critical to growth and quality for all the areas of our life: spiritual, physical, relational, recreational, vocational, and economical.
How Thirsty Are You?
As part of my own journey in creating The Focus Course, I’ve become a student of topics such as doing meaningful work, diligence, focus, distractions, work/life balance, and more.
I’ve always been a student of these, but mostly through my own trial and error. Now that I am building a platform to teach others, I wanted to know what smarter men and women than I have had to say about these topics.
Between my bookshelf and my Kindle there are more than 50 books about creativity, business, time management, goal setting, imposter syndrome, productivity, workaholism, parenting, and more. I’ve read all but the last few.
For a while I was getting a new book delivered 3-4 times per week (thank you, Amazon Prime). My wife, lovingly, joked that I’d gone off the deep end…
Hubby is writing a book on productivity. Either that or the self help books arriving daily in the mail are a serious hint hint. #okayalready— Anna Blanc (@annablancihop) March 17, 2015
I bought the books in paperback or hardback because I wanted to highlight them, write in them, dogear them, put sticky notes in them, and have three books open all at once to compare and contrast them if I wanted to.
In his book, What to Do When it’s Your Turn, Seth Godin writes that “the internet means you can learn anything you want, if you are thirsty enough to do the work to learn it.”
And yet, despite this vast ocean of awesomeness, most of us don’t really want to learn anything. We’d rather zone out on Twitter or Netflix. Or burn out trying to make something with the sole aim that it’ll go viral.
More than 100,000 people regularly sign up for advanced computer science courses online, courses that are taught by great professors and are free to all who enroll. Shockingly, 99 percent — 99 percent! — of the students drop out before they finish the course.
Not thirsty enough.
Learning is a chance to take a risk. To try something new. To observe and evaluate. To ask a question and then listen to the answer. It’s a chance to discover. To have a revelation. To have a conversation.
We learn by reading, listening, observing, doing, teaching, failing, fixing.
We can maintain and increase our capacity in all areas of our life. Ask your spouse if she has a new favorite song. Ask your co-workers what they’re struggling with at work. Watch a YouTube video about woodworking and spend the weekend making a wobbly bench with your kids.
Learning helps us to do better work. It also helps us connect with others.
It took me a few years to come to grips with the fact that it was okay for me to take time away from “producing” in order to maintain and increase my capacity to do creative work. And once I did, I realized how valuable it was to always be learning.
This is what my home office workspace looked like in 2007:
(I still have that trashcan. And the weird blocks underneath the legs of the desk are there because I mis-measured by about 3/4 of an inch when I tried to shortening the height of the desk to something more comfortable.)
It was dorky, but it was also inspirational. Inspirational for what it stood for, really. That photo was taken around the same time as the beginning of my weekends-and-evenings freelancing career. I had just bought that refurbished Mac Pro and 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and now I was ready for the big leagues. It felt great to have a new machine (doing print design on the 12-inch PowerBook was not very ideal), and a newly organized workspace with some semblance of organization and structure. You know the feeling.
A few years later, we ripped out the carpet to reveal the hardwood underneath. Painted the walls, got a new desk from IKEA, and bought a lamp.
That’s the desk where I launched my full-time gig writing shawnblanc.net.
A few years after that, we moved my office downstairs because the upstairs room was to become a nursery for our first son, Noah.
Here’s what my space looked like last year:
Since that time things have de-cluttered a bit. Mostly thanks to the Retina iMac (which is still incredible by the way).
Here’s what my desk looks like today:
As desks are wont to do, mine certainly gets cluttered and messy. But I try to keep it clean and not just let the mess get out of control. For me, inspiration and ideas and calm are more prevalent when the peripherals are dealt with.
My desk is where I spend so much of my time. It’s where I work and where I create. I write, design, pay bills, ignore emails, edit and share pictures with my family, and more… all from here. I’m here right now, in fact.
When I think about showing up every day and doing my best creative work, I think about this space. It has certainly changed and evolved over the past decade, but one thing it’s always had has been a surface to work on, a keyboard to type on, and an internet connection to publish through.
Your creative workspace may be different. But regardless of what or why you’ve got what you’ve got, here are a few things every good creative workspace needs:
Ritual: As I wrote last week, by far and away, the best thing you can do for your creative workspace is to build some ritual / routine into it. When you combine the power of a consistent “where” along with a consistent “what and when”, then you’re basically putting your creative genius on autopilot.
Fun: Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work. If there’s nothing playful, enjoyable, or fun about your workspace how can you hope to create anything inspirational or vibrant? All work and no play makes our creative work very dull indeed.
For me, I have fun built right into the very core of what I do: writing. My keyboard is as clicky as they come, and I love it. Secondly, I have a computer that I love to use: the Retina iMac which is a marvel. As someone who works with words all day long not only do I have my favorite way to type them with, I also have a jaw-dropping display to view them on.
Inspiration Rich: Speaking of fun, a good workspace is inspirational. A few friends of mine who have some pretty great workspaces include: Sean McCabe’s office, which is filled with art prints; Cameron Moll’s space which is very open and organized, but yet also is clearly lived in; and Jeff Sheldon’s office studio, which, like Cameron’s is very organized but very lived in.
I have a bit of inspiration in my place. My bookcase is packed with hardbacks, paperbacks, magazines, Field Notes, Moleskins, and Baron Figs. On the walls are prints of photographs I’ve taken over the years. But looking at some of the aforementioned office spaces, I know there is much I could do to enhance the life, vibrancy, and overall inspiration of my own workspace.
Distraction Poor: A good workspace empowers us to do our best creative work. Distractions are pretty much the opposite of inspiration and motivation. In addition to not letting myself check any stats or social media before I’ve put in my morning writing time, I also get rid of physical distractions in a couple of ways.
For one, I clean up my desk at the end of the day so that tomorrow when I come down to work, there’s nothing left undone that I need to tend to first. Secondly, I put on headphones. I work form home, but right upstairs are two toddler boys whose superpowers include turning into tornadoes.
Efficiency: This is threefold. For one, it’s critical to have the right tools for the right job. You wouldn’t want a butter knife when you’re trying to cut down an oak tree. Secondly, get the best tools you can. I don’t mean get the best tools period, get what you can afford and what you can handle. Lastly, a good workspace is efficient in that it can accommodate what you use on a regular basis and that everything is easily accessible while not also being in the way.
Multiple Spaces: This one’s a luxury, but it’s also so great. If you checked out the photos of Sean, Cameron, and/or Jeff’s offices you may have noticed that there were multiple “stations”. They’re offices have more than one physical place to do work.
In my office there is my desk, but on the other half of the room is a couch and coffee table. And, even my desk converts between a sitting and standing desk. I have these different stations because not all creative work is created equal. I spend at least as much time writing as I do reading and researching. And that latter activity is better spent not in front of my computer.
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In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna lists Space (as in Workspace, not Outer Space), as one of the four obstacles that stand in the way of us doing our most important work — what she calls our “Must”.
You need a physical space — private, safe, and just for you. When you are in this space, you are not available. I repeat, you are not available. This is your sacred space to be by and with yourself. We all need safe containers. How might you create a safe space that you can spend time in daily? How might you get creative with where it begins and ends? Find this place and make it your own.
The unsung hero of showing up every day and doing your best creative work is your workspace. You may think it’s your determination, zeal, and creative genius. And it probably is. But it’s also that you’ve somehow managed to carve out a spot where you can think and work without judgment, inhibition, or distraction.
Perhaps you’ve created your workspace intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally. But either way, if you find that you’ve been doing some of your best work lately, take a moment to thank your space.
However, if you’re struggling — if you don’t have a space — it’s time to make one.
Your space doesn’t have to be made with a desk or a computer. I read about one woman who made her workspace by using painter’s tape to sectioning off part of her living room. She ran the tape across the ceiling, down the walls, and back over the floor.
I’ve had many productive days at coffee shops. Find a table where nobody will give you the stink eye if you’re there for too long, put on headphones if you like, and make your space with an Americano as your wingman.
I have a tendency to edit things to death.
This part could be better, I tell myself. This section could be clearer. That little detail could be improved upon. Over and over until there’s nothing left but a sterile, vanilla, whatever.
I’ve been like this for years. And still I don’t learn. That’s why I set deadlines for myself.
Today is the launch of the new design and landing page for The Focus Course.
For the past year I’ve been actively working on this book and course. And the past couple of months it has been literally all I’m working on. I’m in cave mode. Monk mode. Whatever it is when you’re focusing on just one thing only and don’t come out until it’s done.
I’ve been writing 1,500+ words every day, spending all 8 hours of my work time (and sometimes more) putting together all the research and ideas into the modules for the course.
Though I’ve publishing less frequently here on shawnblanc.net than the average since 2007, the work I’m doing for The Focus Course is, I believe, some of the best work I’ve ever done. I have been loving it.
And yet, despite how excited I am about this, just yesterday, on the eve of launching the new landing page, I was filled with self-doubt.
Am I communicating clearly? Am I over-communicating? Is this interesting? Is it boring? This might not work!
I was up until midnight tweaking the words, rearranging the testimonials, staring at the landing page wondering if each section was in the right order and what I should edit or change.
Because honestly, shipping is scary.
You guys, I don’t know if you knew this, but there are SO MANY books, blogs, articles, magazines, and newsletters out there related to “productivity”. I know, because I read them. But, and just to be honest, after a while everything starts to sound the same.
But I know that I know that The Focus Course can and will be life-changing. It is definitely different. But I also know that everyone says that about their stuff.
Which is why my biggest challenge with telling the story of The Focus Course has been to define what sets it apart. If I’m going to add my voice to the “productivity community”, then I have to do something different.
The course itself is different than anything out there that I know of. But how do I communicate that? How do I communicate that this is different — better — than the alternatives?
A big part of communicating why the course is different is just to say so.
What sets The Focus Course apart is its guided, action-centric nature.
Have you ever read a book, thought it was full of great ideas, tweeted about it, and then put it back on the shelf and went on about your life? Me too.
After reading over 50 of the most influential and popular books that have been written about productivity and creativity during the past century, I often found myself highlighting stuff and feeling motivated but not actually applying change to my life.
I knew that if I wanted to help people (and help myself) I needed to do more than just write another book. I needed a way to apply the wisdom from those books into my daily action and behavior.
So yeah, that’s the story behind the Focus Course.
But there’s another way I wanted to communicate that the course is different — better — than the alternatives.
And that’s through design.
I’m using design as a competitive advantage for The Focus Course. Instead of something expected and typical I wanted something powerful, professional, bold, and awesome. Something with personality.
I’ve been working with one of the most talented designers I know: my good friend, Pat Dryburgh. Pat’s the man responsible for the design of the Focus Course website and, wow. Just wow. (Thank you, Pat!)
This is the first real detailed and official announcement of what the Focus Course is all about. I’m extremely excited to get it out the door later this summer. It’s been a a lot of hard work and good times over the past year. Thanks to all of you who read this site and support the work I do. And thanks to Chris, Stephen, Bradley, Jeff, and Josh for your excellence in what you do on the other sites. Because of you all, I’m able to put the time into building something like this.
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Watch this space, or sign up for The Fight Spot newsletter. Over the next couple months I’ll be sharing more details about the behind the scenes of the what, why, and how of creating and building the course.
And, of course, if you’ve got a moment, go check out the new site. The design and typography are so great. And if you haven’t seen the video yet, I think you’ll enjoy it.
How do you keep focused doing the things that matter even when they’re a grind?
Reader Alan N. just recently asked me this question and it’s an excellent one.
Most of the time, the things that matter are a grind. Why is that? It seems unfair that the most important work is often mundane and difficult. Not to mention that usually the most important work is not even due today.
But that’s the truth of it. We have to define the things that matter and then seek them out and act on them. If we want to do the things that matter, we have to show up every day and do them.
The topic of meaningful productivity is central to The Focus Course. And since I’m almost done building the course, I could talk about this stuff for hours and hours — it’s all right at the top of my mind right now.
In short, at the end of the day, meaningful productivity is about consistently doing the things that matter. Contrary to popular belief, real productivity has very little to do with how many emails we can reply to and then archive in less than 60 seconds.
That said, the way we keep focused on the things that matter even when they’re a grind, is two-fold: (1) Make doing the most important work part of your routine; and (2) celebrate your daily progress.
On the other side of that coin is overcoming two of the greatest areas of resistance to doing meaningful work every day: Inbox Addiction and Urgency Addiction.
Make Doing the Most Important Work Part of Your Routine
I write for a living. And I’ve found that having a common time, common place, and even the same theme music for my writing has made a profound impact on my ability to show up every day and write.
When you look at it from the outside, it sounds silly or boring. But in practice it’s a bit cathartic, and it’s the time of my day I most look forward to. When I know when and where I’ll be writing, and what I’ll be writing about, I can’t wait to get to work.
It wasn’t until just three months ago that I actually set a routine in place for when and where I would write:
Every morning I write for at least 30 minutes no matter what. That’s my commitment: 30 minutes. This writing time is the first thing I do each morning when I start my work day. And though I’m committed to write for at least just 30 minutes, I usually end up writing for about 2.5 hours. Once I’ve pressed through that initial half-hour, I find a flow and just keep going.
I play the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. It’s the Monument Valley soundtrack. On repeat. I put on my headphones and hit play on that album. I probably listen to it 3 or 4 times every day. The advantage is that it just becomes like white noise — because it’s familiar it’s not distracting. And because I’m always listening to this music when I’m writing, the music itself now has a Pavlovian effect that helps me focus in on “writing mode”.
Additionally, I do not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9:00 am. Since I start my work day at 7:30am, I have a minimum of 90 minutes where my only goal is to write, think, or plan.
Thus, not only do I have a commitment to do the work, but also a commitment to not give in to any potential distractions while I’m doing the work. As I’m sure you know, it’s one thing to show up and another thing altogether to actually create something in the time you’ve given yourself.
Since I began this morning writing routine three months ago, I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 90,000 words. This includes my Fight Spot newsletters, podcast scripts and talking points, 31 days (so far) of my 40-day Focus Course, and the first draft of a top-secret new ebook we will be publishing through The Sweet Setup in a few months.
Having this routine in place does more than just create the space for me to do my most important work. It also reserves my willpower and creative energy for that which matters most: doing the actual work.
When I start writing in the morning, I already know what I’m going to write about (because I choose each day’s writing assignment the day before). I also already know how long I’m going to write for (at least 30 minutes), and that I’m not going to do anything else.
There is literally nothing for me to think about other than moving the that big blue blinking cursor from left to right.
It’s most difficult at the beginning
The hardest part of turning our most important work into part of our routine is at the beginning. As we implement a new daily habit, the most energy required is at the outset.
They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But that’s the minimum. For most people it is more like 66 days — about two months. But, once you’ve done something for two months then the discipline required to keep doing it is greatly reduced.
So, for example, writing 1,000 words every day can be extremely challenging for the first week. Then a bit less challenging the week after. Until, after about 8 weeks, you’re practically on autopilot. If you can muster the discipline and diligence to stick with it for a couple of months, then pretty soon the routine of it takes over.
Choose to do something every day until eventually it chooses you back.
Celebrate Your Progress
At the end of every day, I open up my Day One journal and write down the highlights of what I accomplished that day. It usually includes the topic I wrote about and how many words I put down, any meaningful connections or conversations I had, and any other miscellaneous thoughts.
By recognizing and rewarding these small wins each day, it builds up an intrinsic motivation that makes me want to keep doing the important work.
Celebrating progress strengthens our emotional and motivated state. Which means we are happier and more motivated at work and are therefore more likely to be productive and creative. It keeps the cycle going.
We may know what our most important work is. And we may know that we should be spending time on it every day. But oftentimes that head knowledge is not heart knowledge. We don’t feel the value in what we’re doing.
When we feel like cogs in a machine (even cogs who know they’re doing something they think is important) then we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television and unwind.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals.
Note: I was recently interviewed for an episode of the Fizzle show where Chase Reeves discussed how to use a productivity journal. It’s an excellent podcast episode — tightly edited and constructed, like an episode 99pi or something you’d hear on NPR.
Inbox Addiction (“The Just Checks”)
Here’s how I define Inbox Addiction:
Inbox Addiction is an urge to continuously check one’s news feeds, social feeds, and message inboxes despite undesirable and even negative consequences or a desire to stop.
Inbox addiction poses a serious threat to doing our best creative work and staying on focus with our essential tasks. The addiction of checking and refreshing our inboxes, timelines, and stats robs us of our ability to focus as well as our ability to do substantial, meaningful work. It’s a drain on our time as well as a drain on our creative energy.
Last fall I wrote about some alternatives to The Just Checks. In short, when I’m in line at the store or have a moment of down time, instead of habitually checking Twitter or email or Instagram, I try to instead scroll through my Day One timeline (the Day One Today extension for iOS 8 that shows two random photos is great for this, btw) or send an encouraging text message to a friend.
Urgency Addiction in a Nutshell
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey defines Urgency Addiction as this:
Urgency addiction is a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs. And instead of meeting these needs, the tools and approaches of time management often feed the addiction. They keep us focused on daily prioritization of the urgent. […]
It’s important to realize that urgency itself is not the problem. The problem is that when urgency is the dominant factor in our lives, importance isn’t.
The reason urgency addiction robs us of doing our most important work is because essential work is often mundane.
One reason we love to give our energy and attention to doing what is urgent is because it feels exciting. There is a natural momentum and adrenaline that accompanies things which are urgent.
Contrast that against doing what is essential.
Back to the writing example: suppose you are writing a book. The essential work is that you must put words down. And yet, that is so often the very task we neglect and avoid. Because it’s difficult, boring, tedious, mundane. We instead let our days get filled with many other more pressing (“urgent”) matters, and never get to the foundational and important work of writing.
When something is essential, it is absolutely necessary. Essential is the very definition of what’s truly important
Urgent is relative, but essential is absolute. While urgency is usually defined by external factors, essentialness is fundamentally important to a project or goal, regardless of external factors.
Urgency in and of itself is not a problem. The problem is when we find ourselves craving projects, work environments, and scenarios where there is a fire to put out. And thus we never have the time to do the important task which doesn’t have to be done today.
Urgency addiction is when we allow our time to be taken over by whatever is most urgent in the moment. When that happens, we give no consideration to what’s down the road and no priority to the long-term goals. Moreover, it leaves no space for us to walk out our daily habits and lifestyle practices — they get set aside, sacrificed for the sake of yet another urgent crisis or pressing matter.
How often do you feel frustrated at the end of the day because your most important tasks are still not done? How often do you blame the rush and press of external things for your failure to do the work you know to be most important? How often do you find yourself giving up quality time with important people so that you can finish a project or respond to a crisis?
To let our lives be taken over by what is only urgent is to live like a child — caring only about what seems important right now with no regard for the future and without even knowing what is actually important today.
So long as our attention is focused on the urgent and the incoming, we won’t be able to do our best work. We won’t make any meaningful progress toward our goals because we will be dealing only with the tasks and situations which are urgent while we neglect the ones which are essential.
* * *
The newness of a project brings an energy that motivates us to get started. And the urgency of a deadline brings an energy that motivates us to finish. But what about in-between? How do we keep on doing the work in-between starting something new and finishing it? Because the vast majority of our life is lived in that “in-between state”.
Joy in the Journey
The best musicians in the world practice every single day. For hours a day. And they don’t just practice their favorite songs and coolest licks — they practice the techniques and scales and fills that they’re bad at.
I studied martial arts for over a decade, and we did the same stretches and basic moves at the start of every class every time. Even after I received my black belt, we were still practicing basic front stance and middle punch.
You write a book by writing it. Thinking about it, outlining it, researching for it, yeah you’ve got to do these. But you’ve also got to sit down and write it. Even if you can write 1,000 words every day, you’re looking at a couple of months to write the first draft.
Something the best musicians, the martial artists, and writers all have in common is more than just commitment and fortitude. More than just routine. They have a joy in the journey.
And while the musician, martial artist, and writer all have goals they’re working toward, the goal is not the primary motivation. When we delight in the journey, then the daily grind becomes what we get to do. Not something we have to do.
In his book, Mastery, George Leonard writes that “love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and drink.”
When we’re doing work that matters there is no finally moment. The tension and the difficulty never go away. The distractions and excuses will always be around. Hard work will always be hard work. The goal is not to eliminate the tension but to thrive in the midst of it.
P.S. I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d like to be notified when The Focus Course comes out, sign up here.
You’ll get my weekly emails regarding creativity, focus, and risk. And, you’ll get my 40-page PDF, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.
Let’s take two quotes, mash their ideas together, and see what we get:
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
“If I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential.” — Henri Nouwen
I’ve been working from home and working for myself for over 4 years. One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.
In any given day I usually have 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.
If I push my day to include more than that, the returns on that extra energy is very little. Though the workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks, there is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
Honestly, at times it can be difficult to let myself quit while I’m ahead for the day and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.
Albert Einstein once said: “Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”
Over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on the “act of productivity” is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being “efficient” is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships. Meaningful productivity means showing up to do the important work on a regular basis.
Time management, task management, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track, but they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on the important work itself.
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These activities are far more important than the checkmarks I make on my to-do list.
When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.
“You can do anything, but not everything.” — David Allen
I am in the fortunate position that I don’t have to deal with email to do my job. In fact, the inverse that is closer to the truth: the less time I spend doing email the better I can do my job.
There are a few types of emails that I always pay attention to, and a handful of people whom I try to always correspond with in a timely manner. But I have rules and flags set up for those so that they are always sure to get my attention in my inbox.
For the rest of my emails, chances are I won’t ever reply to them. The reason I’m such a poor email correspondent to most people is that I just choose not to spend much time in email. Instead, I choose to spend my time doing other things such as writing, reading, managing the the administrative and financial logistics that accompany working for yourself, and spending as much time with my family as possible.
I could easily spend 3-4 hours every day reading to and replying to the messages in my inbox. But it’s not just the time and correspondence aspects of email that I chose to say no to — I’m also preemptively avoiding the decision-making and judgment-making requests that incoming emails ask of me.
Many of the emails I get are requests for my time, in one way or another. Either a request for an interview, an app review, to be a beta tester, etc. I would love to give my time and attention to these things if I could — I know I’m missing some great opportunities and relationships. But that’s just the way I’m letting it be — it’s an unfortunate consequence of my choice to be “poor” at email.
But if I were focus on all the incoming emails, and pursue all the opportunities that those messages presented, then I’d have no time, energy, or focus left for what is my most important work.
My friend Chris Bowler wrote about this. Saying: “Can we all agree to just let go? To stop caring that we might miss something big, something important? Reality is, we are all missing something important in front of us every day, while we carefully scan our feeds, missing the suffering, the joy, the simple state of being all around us. Our families and friends, our neighbours, our complete strangers.”
If I said yes to all the requests and opportunities and potential new relationships coming to my inbox then I’d have another full-time job, and I wouldn’t be able to write anymore.
My approach to email is not unlike the approach with one of the co-founders of Google has. David Shin, a former Google employee, shared this story:
When I worked at Google in 2006/2007, Larry and Sergey held a Q&A session, and this exact question was asked of them. One of them answered (I don’t remember which) with the following humorous response (paraphrased):*
”When I open up my email, I start at the top and work my way down, and go as far as I feel like. Anything I don’t get to will never be read. Some people end up amazed that they get an email response from a founder of Google in just 5 minutes. Others simply get what they expected (no reply).”*
I spend about 20-30 minutes a day in my email, and whatever I get to I get to. And whatever I don’t, unfortunately, goes unanswered. Because for me, Inbox Zero is actually all about the outbox. Inbox Zero means I choose to focus my time, energy, and attention on creating something worthwhile instead of feeding some unhealthy addiction to constantly check my inboxes. It means I care more about this moment than I do about my narcissistic tendencies of knowing who’s talking to me on Twitter. It means I care more about doing my best creative work than about keeping up with the real-time web and being instantly accessible via email.
By “pre-deciding” that the majority of requests for my time and attention over email just go unanswered, it gives me a fighting chance at doing my best creative work every day. Not only does it give me more time to focus on that which is important, but it gives me more creative energy to do my best work during that time.
In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”
Mann’s line carries the same truth as the earlier quote by Robert Louis Stevenson. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Our devotion to that which is important can only be sustained by the neglect of that which is non-essential.
Your story doesn’t have to be about email. I bet you a cup of coffee there is something you can decide to be poor at so you can be better at something else.
Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect, and then we have to grow comfortable with being in that state of “perpetual neglect”. Something not easily done in a culture that tells us we can and should have it all and do it all.
But what happens when we try to do it all? In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown has an excellent diagram comparing the difference between our efforts when we have many pursuits versus focusing in on just one thing.
When we are spending a little bit of time on a million different projects, areas of responsibilities, tasks, and activities, then we make very little progress on any of them. And our efforts are stretched thin. However, if we focus our energy on only the most important things — that which is essential — then we make meaningful progress. Not to mention, it just feels more rewarding to focus on one important thing and do it with excellence.
When we take a moment to consider what our most important work is, we tend to think mostly about what we want to accomplish and do and be.
But why not also think about what we will not do? What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others? What areas of our time, energy, and attention will we simplify in order to create the space and the margin to do what we want?
We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything. Which means that for every “yes” there are 1,000 “no”s.
P.S. I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d like to be notified when it comes out, sign up for here.
You’ll get my weekly emails regarding creativity, focus, and risk. And, you’ll get my 40-page PDF, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.
It was February of 2011 when I announced I was quitting my job and would be going full-time with shawnblanc.net. At the time I’d been writing here for just shy of four years.
Now, it has been another four. As I sit here this morning, writing these words, my heart is filled with gratitude. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to pull back the curtain and share from my heart this morning.
Looking back at the launch of my membership, in some ways, it seems like I did it all wrong. I “launched a product” four years ago without an email list, without any forewarning, and I probably totally undersold my value and left money on the table.
Literally all I did was publish a blog post telling everyone I was quitting my job and asked them to pitch in $3/month to support me. Oh, and I made a super dorky video using the iSight Camera on my MacBook Pro.
By today’s standards, there’s no way that should have worked.
But it did. By golly, it actually did work.
I’m sure I could have done things better. But at the same time, maybe not. There are a few reasons I think it did work, and if I take out any one of those dynamics who knows but the whole thing might have failed.
For one, I’d already been writing my site consistently for almost 4 years. This is something you, as a maker and an artist, can’t get away from. A maker makes. And I’d proved myself — both to you, the reader, and also to my own self — that I was in it for the long run. It wasn’t about an end goal — it was about the journey. And it still is. I’m not looking for an exit, I’m looking for a lifestyle and a community.
The consistency I had built up was an invaluable foundation upon which I was able to ask people to support my work. The whole pitch of the membership drive was along the lines of: “if you like the writing I’ve been doing here already, then pitch in a few bucks per month and I’ll be able to keep writing and write more frequently.”
If I hadn’t already been writing consistently for years, then there’s no way I could have asked people for their support.
My site archives served as the portfolio. My consistency was my résumé. And my new employer, the readers, decided to hire me.
But consistency is the obvious part, right. We all know that, part, right? We know we’ve got to show up every day if we want to build an audience or whatever. But there is more to it than that.
If you’re an artist and you are showing up every day as a means to an end, it will blow up in your face.
You get back what you give out. You reap what you sow.
So yes, consistency is the foundation. But it’s not the solution in and of itself.
There are a thousand million other websites out there, all publishing something every day. But there is one thing that separates them from you. That one thing is you. YOU!
Once you show up, it’s time to be honest. To bleed. To have fun. Roll your sleeves up and put your hands in the dirt. Smile. Laugh. Cry. Be genuine.
For eight years now I’ve been writing for shawnblanc.net, and I still get nervous every time I’m about to hit publish. At first, I thought the fear was just my novice-ness showing through. I assumed that once I got more experience under my belt, I’d be less afraid to publish. But I know now that’s not the case.
That edge of fear is what keeps me on track. If I’m afraid, then chances are I’m publishing something worthwhile. If I’m working on a project and constantly asking myself if it’s even going to work, then it means I’m probably making something of value.
If I pause for a moment before hitting “publish”, then it means there is probably someone who will find value in what I’ve just written. And so I hope to never get comfortable and never stop taking risks. From the small, daily risks of publishing an article, to the big crazy risks of starting a new website, trusting my team, writing a book, or creating a massive online course that I hope will literally change people’s lives.
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Let me wrap this up by saying two things.
To the fellow makers, writers, podcasters, designers, and artists, out there: Thank you for making what you make. Keep showing up. And, most of all, keep being genuine. Keep dancing with that fear.
And to you, dear readers: A million, billion thanks. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your support over these years. I’m having more fun writing now than I ever have. It’s hard as hell, but that’s the point. In some ways I feel like we’re just getting started.
- April 1, 2011 was a Friday. I took a 3 day weekend to give myself some breathing room after quitting my job the day before, and didn’t publish my first article as a full-time, indie blogger until April 4, 2011. Details.↵
Below is a transcript from today’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly. You can listen to the episode here.
* * *
On my weekly newsletter, The Fight Spot, I ask people what their biggest challenge is related to focus and doing their best creative work.
One very common issue is the issue of having more ideas than time. People have so many interesting, exciting, or important projects they are working on that they don’t know where to start. They feel overwhelmed by options. They have too much to do. And so one very common question is “How do I get it all done?”
Last summer, I was in San Francisco for WWDC, and I was talking about this issue with a friend. He’s an iPhone app developer and he literally has dozens of apps and web services out there. I ask him how he juggles his focus and priorities.
For me, at times I feel stretched thin with “just” my 3 websites and podcast. I know that I do my best work when I am head down and focused on just one project and it’s all I think about until I’m done.
But sometimes that’s not an option (or is it?).
My friend said that to have multiple projects you have to be okay with letting one or more of them be neglected for a time while you work on the others. And, in his experience, coming back to an app and working hard to ship a big update, he often wouldn’t even see a big spike in new sales. So the update wasn’t even worth it all that much in terms of the short term, only.
* * *
Let me start by saying that I don’t know the answer, here. There isn’t one universal rule here. You have to trust your gut and know your situation to make the call if you’re going to keep juggling many projects or if you’re going to let some go to focus on one.
That said, for those of us who have several projects and ideas all going at the same time, how do we juggle them?
Here are some suggestions:
Identify your roles and goals: you need balance in your life, so step back and identify your roles (parent, boss, employee, self-improver, etc.) And make sure that you’re not spending the vast majority of your time in just one of those roles.
Reduce the scope: consider scaling back what “1.0” looks like, so it’s something that is attainable. And consider lowering your bar of perfectionism — my friend Sean McCabe says we ought to aim for 90% complete (instead of 99%).
Reduce your project load: do you have to be doing all the projects right now? Can one or more of them be put on pause? Instead of doing three projects all simultaneously, can you do one at a time? Even on a week-to-week basis?
Get help: consider delegating and/or hiring others to help you.
Learn to say no to your own ideas: In The Focus Course, there is a day dedicated to ideation and strengthening our creative imagination. One of the benefits to this exercise is that you learn you have more ideas than time, and you don’t have to be a slave to your good ideas. We all will have ideas that we want to do, but the existence of them doesn’t mean we are now obligated to flesh them out.
Spend less time on counterfeit rest: things like television, video games, social media, mindless internet surfing — these things can be time sinks. Moreover, they don’t leave us feeling refreshed, motivated, or recharged. You most definitely need breaks and time to rest, but there are some great ways to do it other than zoning out.
Plan ahead: your productive tomorrow starts today. What is one thing you can do now that will improve life for your future self? Go to bed on time, set out your clothes for tomorrow, write down the first thing you’re going to do when you sit down to work in the morning, etc. This will give you a head start on your projects.
“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”
– Benjamin Franklin
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Protip: There are four ways to help yourself avoid squandering time:
- Plan ahead (make a schedule)
- Awareness of how you tend to spend your time
- Don’t be dumb
Regarding (1): There are a lot of resources available to help you improve how you spend your time. Heck, I’m building an entire course to help you be more focused and do more meaningful work (and then some).
Regarding (4): well, that’s up to you.
Regarding (2) and (3): There’s an online service called Rescue Time that I think is pretty awesome.
* * *
In the past 8 weeks, I’ve logged more than 400 hours of my time using Rescue Time. They say hindsight is 20/20, and the Rescue Time service is a way to see how you’re actually spending your time. Its insight and data can help you make better decisions about what you do with your day.
In a nut, Rescue Time is an online service that tracks and categorizes how you spend your time. It’s ideal for folks who spend most of their time working from a computer.
You start by signing up on their website. Then you download and install the app to your Mac (they’ve a PC version as well), and then you register the app with your online account.
Once your computer is connected, you create your profile. Rescue Time asks you what your top three most distracting activities are and what your top three most productive activities are.
I put (a) Social Networking, (b) News & Opinion, and (c) Shopping as my top three most distracting activities.
Then I put (a) Reference & Learning, (b) Design & Composition, and (c) Business as my top three most productive activities.
I also asked Rescue Time to prompt me for time spent away from my computer. This way, when I return to my Mac after taking a lunch break, reading break, or going for a run, the Rescue Time app will prompt me to ask what I was doing while I was away.
Once your Rescue Time profile is created, you’ll have some default preferences set up for you. The two goals Rescue time starts you with are:
- More than 2 hours spent daily on your first-listed, most productive activity.
- Less than 2 hours spent on all of your most-distracting activities combined.
I changed my first goal to be 2 hours spent on writing each day. I feel like all the things which fall into my top 3 categories would easily be accomplished in 2 hours and then some. I wanted to try and have 2 hours focused just on writing itself. This is, for me, my most important thing every day.
Unfortunately, after my first week, I didn’t hit my goal. [Shakes fist in the air.] But it turns out Rescue Time was set to average my goal of 2 hours of writing across a 24/7 schedule. Since I take Saturday and Sunday off, that was messing with my average. So I adjusted the goal to be 2 hours/day between Monday-Friday 6am-8pm. And boom.
For the first week I tried to log all of my offline time including sleep and personal time in the mornings before sitting down at my desk. That proved to be tedious. So I just stopped logging sleeping hours. I’m not going to try and let Rescue Time keep tabs on all 168 hours of my week, just the ones when I’m at the computer.
It’s been 8 weeks now, and twice I’ve gone in to my Rescue Time dashboard to fine tune the categories and productivity score (between 1-5) of my activities. For example, I do a lot of basic note taking and writing in Simplenote (I’m doing my initial notes for this Rescue Time review right now, in Simplenote). But Rescue Time defaulted to seeing Simplenote as being a Business-related activity, not a writing-related one. Well, I want Simplenote to count toward my 2 hour goal of writing.
This is easily changed when viewing the activity page for Simplenote: I just Edited it and changed what activity category it should fall under. I also changed its level of productivity (on a scale of 1-5 from very distracting to very productive).
The productivity level of each activity contributes to the overall “productivity score” that you receive at the end of the week. Right now for the 8 weeks I’ve been using Rescue Time, my overall productivity score is 79. Which I think is pretty good.
I know there is some margin of error in there. For example, not all the time I spend on Twitter is distracting. But sometimes it is. I suppose that to keep a clear distinction between “productive Twitter” and “distracting Twitter” I could set the twitter.com website as distracting and Tweetbot as productive. But that’s easier said than done when it comes to keeping yourself on track. So I just let Twitter be distracting and try not to be too productive on there lest I feel cheated.
For the paid, Pro level of Rescue Time you can choose to have certain websites blocked. This is called “Get Focused”.
So far as I can tell, when you “Get Focused” it only blocks websites. Which means you can still launch certain apps. So, for instance, twitter.com would be blocked but Tweetbot still works.
(Matt Gemmell has an article about this, and shares about some certain apps that run on your computer and full-on block websites and APIs and apps and more.)
The slight conundrum about Rescue Time’s Get Focused tab is that things like checking Twitter and email are a mixed bag. I often use Twitter for productive work, but also it can be a time sink. So it’s not this one-to-one direct ratio where Twitter equals unproductive every time. But it can be unproductive. And I think having at least a little bit of understanding about how much time I tend to spend on Twitter can be helpful to keep myself on track.
When you’ve met a goal you can get an alert, or when you’ve spent too much time on “distracting” activities, you can get an alert. I’ve gotten pretty good at hitting my daily goal of writing for 2 hours, so I don’t get an alert for that. But I get an alert if I spend more than one hour on distracting activities.
Also, Rescue time works with Zapier. I haven’t figured out just how I’m going to exploit this, but it’s awesome nonetheless. You could use it to log your WordPress blog posts, MailChimp email campaigns sent, and who knows what else.
As I mentioned earlier, Rescue Time knows when I’m away from my computer via inactivity. Which is awesome and kind-of annoying. When I come back to my Mac, Rescue Time prompts me to categorize the activity I was doing while away.
I can define and set these categories so that my time away options suit my most common time away activities. And I can give a description detail about the time away if I want.
Some other apps I’ve used for time tracking like this don’t do a great job at watching when I’m away. And so they’ll say that I spent 5 hours one day in OmniFocus b/c I left that as the frontmost app when walking away from my computer or something like that.
Since I try to spend a good amount of my time reading and working away from my Mac, I like that I can still log that time and have it count.
One thing I don’t like about Rescue Time is how bent it is on office work as the center of everything. I had to go to the Miscellaneous category and create two new sub-categories: one for “Family” and another for “Personal”. And then I had to set those as “Productive” times. Oy.
I’m not sure if Rescue Time assumes I treat family time as non-productive (as if time with my family means time when I’m not doing anything of value) or if they just assume that I don’t take breaks in my day to be with my family.
But for me, I often take breaks in the afternoon and into the evening to be with my kids. (It’s a huge reason why I quit my job 4 years ago to work from home.) But then I may come back to my computer in the evening to wrap up some tasks or work on photos or something. Rescue Time’s default was to log that Family time as uncategorized and neutral. But no way — it’s just as much a valid use of my time as writing is.
So, that said, my biggest gripe against Rescue Time is its bias toward defining productive as “working”. But with a little bit of customizing my reports and categories, I’ve been able to change the definition of Productivity to something more along the lines of “doing what’s important”. (Now that’s what I call meaningful productivity.)
Rescue Time and the Small Wins
And this ties in with something I wrote about a while ago regarding celebrating progress.
Acknowledging our daily progress is a way to strengthen our inner work life. In our efforts to create meaningful work, it can be easy to get lost in the mundaneness of our day-to-day.
And so, one way we can thrive in the midst of the daily chaos is to recognize the few things we did today that made progress on meaningful work or that strengthened an important area of our lives.
When we take the time to celebrate our small victories — to celebrate progress — then we are re-wiring our brain (our thought process) to seek out the reward found in doing meaningful work instead of the quick-fix high we get from putting out meaningless fires and filling our time with busywork.
I’m an advocate of journaling my daily progress as a way to give myself a daily boost of confidence and motivation. Which then impacts my behavior to keep on doing the important work, which leads to better and better results and increased performance.
Rescue Time plays a role here as well. It’s a 3rd-party telling me that I met my daily goals and had a productive day / week. Rescue Time’s report is mostly just the amalgamation of time spent in productive and very productive categories. But since I’ve defined those categories and their level of “productivity” for me, I trust the reports and use them to boost my own motivation.
Having a 3rd-party service track your time may sound crazy to you. But I think it’s worth it, if even for a short season. It’s not always easy to view our habits, workflows, and calendars objectively. But if we can learn about how we spend our time and use that knowledge to rescue even just 15 or 30 minutes a day, wow! That time adds up fast.
As I was getting the links for this article put together, I discovered Rescue Plan has an affiliate program. If you want to sign up for the Pro account, use this link and I get a small kickback. Their free plan is great, too. And a good way to test the waters. Thanks!
On a recent edition of The Fight Spot, I wrote about one of the aspects of doing our best creative work: stepping out of the echo chamber.
The dictionary definition of echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
An enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal (a multi-dimensional repeating of what was once said) and whatever you say is echoed back to you.
Echo Chamber is also a metaphor. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: In media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed.
By nature, each of us tend to sit in the center of our own echo chamber.
When we get too absorbed in the platform, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It becomes noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. And it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
When we look to the echo chamber as our sole source of inspiration, it’s like looking to a bag of chips for our sole source of nourishment. The constant barrage of our timelines and inboxes — those “little updates” — are like snacks and junk food. They will fill you up but they are not a significant form of nourishment.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
The inspiration and motivation needed for your best creative work will not come from the echo chamber.
Limit your feeds and inboxes. Subscribe only to the people and sources of input that enrich your life and give you the motivation and tools to do your best creative work.
Seek out inspiration from offline sources. Such as books, nature, conferences, silence, prayer and meditation, relationships, journaling, building your own projects, etc.
Create something every day. Write in your journal, come up with 10 ideas, take a photograph, draw a sketch, etc.
Curate what you share. Be a source of motivation, encouragement, and equipping to those who follow you. Put thought into the work you publish. Even your tweets and Facebook updates can be nuggets that motivate, equip, and encourage.
A Challenge to You
At some point this week, do one of these things:
Unsubscribe from one RSS feed or email newsletter, or unfollow one person on Twitter or Facebook.
(You should feel free to unsubscribe from my site / newsletter / unfollow me on Twitter — if what I am writing isn’t helpful to you at this time, or isn’t providing you with the motivation and tools to do your best creative work, then cut it out. You only have so much time, and the last thing I want is to be a non-helpful source of input in your day.)
- Take 15 minutes to find inspiration from an offline source. Read a chapter from a favorite book, put your phone in another room and just sit in silence, take a walk outside, etc.
Create something. Write a journal entry, take a photograph, draw something, come up with 10 ideas for little ways you can show your friends and family how much you love them (you don’t even have to act on the 10 ideas you come up with).
Do something to encourage or equip someone else.
Before you move on from this article, decide which one of the above challenges you’re going to do and make a time in your week for when you’re going to do it.
Is the stay-at-home dad who spends most of his day changing diapers and cleaning up messes any less productive than his wife who is the CEO of a charity organization?
Productivity tends to be defined by how well we use our task management systems, how organized our calendar app is, how fast we can blaze through a pile of emails, and how fluidly we flow from one meeting to the next. But those metrics can skew toward rewarding effective busywork while giving little dignity to meaningful work.
What if we started defining productivity differently?
Less focus on our party trick of balancing many plates at once.
More focus on consistently giving our time and attention to the things which are most important.
When Ray Bradbury was first staring out as a writer, he thought the path to success was to do what everyone else was doing. He found inspiration in other people’s work, but he lacked originality. It wasn’t until later in his career that he began to discover what he called the truths beneath his skin and behind his eyes.
Last Wednesday on The Fight Spot, I wrote about removing ourselves from the Echo Chamber. An echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
Have you ever felt that you’re spending too much time in an enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal and whatever you say is echoed back to you?
When we get too absorbed in things like the platform, the analytics, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It’s noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. We lose motivation for doing meaningful work; it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
* * *
I’m going to ask you a question. And I want you to answer honestly.
Don’t answer to me or to your peers. Don’t answer with what you think you should say. Take a breath and answer honestly to yourself.
Okay, here’s the question:
Do you want to do work that matters?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Okay. One more question:
Are you willing to be foolish?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Are you willing to be foolish in order to do work that matters? Are you willing to fail? To be honest with others? Are you willing to create something even when life is still messy? Are you willing to take risks? Are you willing to put your work out there even when you’re afraid it might not work? Are you willing to try something different than what everyone else is doing because your gut says “why not”? Are you willing to make space in your schedule so you can show up and create something every day?
In our heart, we say, “Yes!” Then we tell ourselves we’ll start tomorrow.
Most of us want to do work that matters. But most of us don’t want to be foolish. At least, not right now. Or, we’re okay with being foolish so long as it’s calculated, planned out, polished, and then distilled down to the lowest common denominator until it’s so insipid it couldn’t possibly be confused as foolishly original.
Here’s a tip: it’s easier to be foolish and to take risks when you are surrounded by people who are also being foolish and taking risks.
If you want to do work that matters, then run from the risk averse and put yourself right in the middle of the foolish crowd.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
As you may or may not know, a few weeks ago I started an email newsletter. It’s called The Fight Spot. It goes out every Wednesday (like today!), and it’s about creativity, focus, and risk. All of which are moving targets; all of which are a fight.
Over the past several weeks, many of the The Fight Spot newsletters, plus several blog posts here on shawnblanc.net, as well as some Shawn Today and Weekly Briefly podcast episodes, have been on the topic of procrastination.
A lot of you have emailed me or tweeted to say thanks for these articles. Such as Ryan, who wrote me to share this:
I’m typically one who will skim an email and archive it, but this is one I’ve already read multiple times and it’s still in my inbox. It’s likely going to end up as a pinned note in Evernote so I can refer back to it often. This is exactly the kind of thing I strive to consider and focus on… this is the perfect reminder to keep focused on the essential.
I wanted to put all the procrastination-centric content together into a single document. It’s called The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress.
It’s a completely free, refined and organized PDF version of all the blog posts, newsletters, and podcast episodes I’ve been putting out there related to procrastination over the past month.
It’s 40-pages long, 8,500 words and change, and is comprised of 13 short sections.
On Monday I sent the guide out to everyone on The Fight Spot newsletter list and the feedback has been great.
Here’s what Greg Colker wrote me to say about the guide:
This morning I read the Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress and it’s really good! I love how concise it is and yet packed with the best principles for being the best person you can be. I also like that you included a suggestion to pay attention to procrastination, to learn from it. That’s important, but often overlooked.
If you want to subscribe to The Fight Spot newsletter, I’ll send you The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress for free:
I was scared to death to tell everyone I was quitting my job to try and be a full-time “blogger”.
I had been writing this site on the side for several years, but in 2011 I decided to quit my job as a creative and marketing director. I quit so I could write here as my full-time gig.
Aside from the fear of rejection, the fear that my membership drive would be a colossal embarrassment, and the fear that I was throwing my future away, one of the things I feared most was that I’d run out of things to write about.
That was four years ago. The fears about rejection, the membership drive, and my wasted future all turned out to be for naught. As did the fear of running out of things to write about.
What I didn’t anticipate was just how easy it could be for a full-time writer to never actually write.
About two months ago, as the holiday season was winding down and the new year was upon us, I realized something about my morning work routine. I was spending the best part of my day checking inboxes and analytics.
Every day when I came downstairs to my office to work, my first instinct was to check all the things. Were there any urgent @replies? What about urgent emails? What was our website traffic like yesterday? How much did we make on affiliate income?
I told myself these stats were important metrics, and it was okay to check them right away. Who knows if someone may have emailed me with a problem on one of my websites that I needed to know about as soon as possible?
In truth, there were never any urgent emails or Twitter replies. Traffic and income were almost always exactly what they always were. And the process of checking all these inboxes and statistics usually would spiral into an hour or more of just surfing.
I was wasting the best part of my day.
This was not how I wanted to spend the first hours of my work day.
Which is why I decided to change my habits.
I made a commitment that every morning I would write for 30 minutes no matter what. This writing time would be the first thing I did each morning when I started my work day.
Additionally, I committed that I would not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9am. I start my work day at 7:30am, so I knew I had a good 90 minutes of time where my only goal was to write, think, or plan.
Lastly, I started playing the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. I have a soundtrack playlist on Rdio. I’d put on my headphones and hit play on that playlist.
For the first several days, it was a mental workout. My mind rebelled. I literally went into inbox withdrawal. I wanted to check the inboxes and the stats. But I would keep my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. If I every finished writing at 8:59am, I would wait one more minute — until it was 9:00am — before I moved on and began checking the stats and the inboxes.
It took about a week before began to get into the groove. When I’d walk into my office I knew that the first thing I was going to do was write. It didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. I was committed to write for at least half an hour.
Before I made this habit change, I was usually writing 500 to 1,000 words every day. But I didn’t have an exact time for when I’d do my writing, nor did I have a clear idea for what I’d be writing about. It was hit or miss, honestly. Some days I didn’t write at all. And I certainly wasn’t making daily, iterative progress on my long-term writing goals.
However, since I made this change a month ago I’ve written over 40,000 words.
40,000 words in one month.
I’m glad I decided to change my morning habits.
I still am keeping my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. But those 30 minutes almost always spill over. Most days I write for 2 to 3 hours in the morning. Sometimes more. And I often spend an hour writing in the afternoon as well because I have so much momentum left over from what I began working on that morning.
This is funny to me.
Because here I am writing a book about living with diligence and focus. And yet I realized I was not being very focused with my writing habit, nor was I working with clear goals in mind. Sure, I was writing every day, but I wasn’t doing my best creative work.
All throughout my book I hit on this one very important point: focus and diligence are moving targets.
We never just “get it”. It’s something we always have to be working on, reassessing, and re-evaluating. But it’s worth the work. If we make a small change that brings us just a slight increase to our productivity and creativity, the returns we’ll get over the course of our lives will be immeasurable.
The worst assumption I could make would be that I have it all together. That I have it all worked out and never have to change my lifestyle, habits, or work routines.
If I had assumed that, then I never would have realized I’m not reaching my best potential in this season of life. By making a small change (to write for 30 minutes each morning before checking Twitter) I drastically increased the quantity and quality of my creative output every day.
They say that after the age of 30 you begin to reject new technology. The things that existed or were invented before you turned 30 you accept and adapt into your life. But the things invented after you turn 30 you reject as being crazy or evil or who knows what.
If people do that with technology how much more so with lifestyle habits and practices and workflows?
After four years of being a full-time writer, I’m glad I allow myself to reevaluate my workflows and my habits and my routines. These things just degrade over time, and so they need to be evaluated. And I need to keep learning how to do things a little bit better.
My friend, Justin Jackson, wrote an article about the potential pitfalls of following in your heroes’ footsteps. He writes:
As creators, there’s a temptation to seek out our heroes and ask them how they achieved their success. We think if we follow their instructions, we’ll be able to reproduce their winning magic.
Justin goes on to make some excellent points. We can’t follow in the footsteps of our heroes because the path has changed since they first took it. Also, their personality is different than ours. So too their circumstances — perhaps they were single with no kids when they started their company, or perhaps they were 65 when they got started.
However, there are mindsets and lifestyle commitments that we can emulate. What where the underlying principles that led them to be consistent, focused, and successful?
I think we could sum it up thusly:
A commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
A Commitment to Honesty and Clarity. This means we don’t shy away from the truth of who we want to be, where we are, where we want to go, what capacity we hold, what we want to build, and how we will build it. Don’t shy away from being honest with yourself and finding clarity about your vision, values, goals, and resources.
A Bias Toward Action: This is doing the work. Showing up every day. Focusing on what’s important but not necessarily urgent. Getting things done.
If you’re familiar with Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, you’ll see that this sums up the first three habits, but especially so the 2nd. The habit of beginning with the end in mind is all about the balance between leadership and management.
Covey writes about how things are created twice: first there is the idea and then there is the manifestation of that idea. First we build with our imagination, then we build with our hands. Both stages of “creating” are vital because we need both clarity and action.
Too much focus on ideas and we’ll never do the work. But too much focus on staying busy and we may find ourselves spinning our wheels without making progress or creating anything of value.
* * *
Coming back to Justin’s article about not following in our heroes’ footsteps. It’s true that our heroes have possibly forgotten the exact path they took (because it was 10 or 20 years ago for them), or that the landscape is different now than it was then, or just the fact that we and our heroes are alltogether different people with different life circumstances, etc.
And so, when we glean from those whom we look up to, the goal isn’t to peer over their shoulder and peek at their to-do list and their agenda. Rather, we should glean from their values, their approach to problem solving, and their work ethic.
And at the end of the day, I believe we’ll find a common denominator amongst so many of the succesful people we look up to. Those who create incredible businesses, who are prolific in their art, who serve others well:
They have a commitment to honesty and clarity, and they have a bias toward action.
* * *
Drilling down a bit further, there are more than a few lists and charts I’ve come across in the reading and study I’ve been doing for my upcoming book. And as I was comparing these lists and charts, two that have stuck out to me are Tony Robbins’ 5 questions as a way to help us with honesty and clarity and then Stephen Covey’s 7 habits as a way to help us with action.
Tony Robbins’ 5 Questions
Marc Benioff’s V2MOM method (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measurements) which are based on Tony Robbins’ five questions help us be honest.
- What do I really want? (Vision)
- What is important about it? (Values)
- How will I get it? (Methods)
- What is preventing me from having it? (Obstacles)
- How will I know I am successful? (Measurements)
Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits
Stephen Covey’s book helps us develop a lifestyle with a bias toward action. The 7 Habits are:
Be Proactive: Taking responsibility and chosing to do something with our life. A commitment to making forward progress — to just getting going. To act instead of be acted on. To cease blaming external circumstances. To be solution oriented. To focus on what we can control and what we can do something about (called our “circle of influence”).
Begin with the End in Mind: Imagination and leadership. Knowing who you want to be and what you wan to do. Also, knowing that vision isn’t enough — we also have to take those ideas and make them a reality. We have to think and act. Plan and do. The need for both leadership and management.
Put First Things First: Have a bias toward action, but have that action be in line with your vision, values, and doing important work and making progress on meaningful work.
Think Win-Win: Life is not a zero-sum game. We can put others first and serve them without endangering our own goals. Cooperation not competition.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood: It’s important to listen with the intent to understand. Don’t be selfish or narcissistic. (This is what Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is all about.)
Synergize: We go further together. Two heads are better than one. Teamwork, cooperation, open-mindedness. The differences in our peers, co-workers, and family members should be seen as strengths, not weaknesses.
Sharpen the Saw — Being commited to personal growth and renewal in the four areas of our life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.
* * *
As I mentioned above, there are so many lists and methodologies for personal growth and becoming a person who gets things done. None of them are “the only one”. There is no secret potion. Which is why I’ve been trying to see if there’s a common denominator. Is there just a simple concept or idea to keep in the front of mind as we try to stay steady in our pursuit of doing our best creative work?
I think there is. It’s having a commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
You’d be hard pressed to find a successful musician, athlete, programmer, designer, writer, singer, or businessman who didn’t have a goal in mind and who didn’t show up every day to practice and work hard.
By the way, I just kicked off The Fight Spot newsletter — my weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.
My grandmother used to say, “don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.” Tomorrow will have enough craziness of its own, right?
All through high school and college, I pretty much lived the opposite of my grandmother’s advice. Why do now what I can put off until the very last minute?
To play devil’s advocate, in some ways putting off a project or task until the last minute can have some benefits. Eventually you’ll be forced to make a choice: are you going to do the project or not? Assuming you decide to do it, then by nature of waiting until the very last minute, you’ll be forced to focus on it (though probably immediately and under stress). But at least you’ve finally started to work on it and at least you’re focused. Right?
Meh. The disadvantages of procrastination far outweigh the (occasional, if any) advantages there may be. Chances are you’re not doing your best work because you’re feeling stressed and rushed. You have to complete the task by a certain time and so there may not be enough time to do your best work. Moreover, consider the period of procrastination and all the time that was degraded. When you’re putting a project off (deferring it with no clear plan of attack other than “later), your brain won’t let go. You’re operating at a sub-optimal capacity because you’ve got this weight of the undone project and its undefined plan of attack.
You know this. I know this. Yet still we procrastinate. Why?
Why do we procrastinate?
- Because we lack motivation.
- There are other things we’d rather be doing.
- We don’t know what the first step to get started is.
- We’re afraid.
- We’re easily distracted.
- We think we lack the resources to start / complete the task.
- The project feels overwhelming.
- We’re stubborn.
- We have a history of procrastinating and not seeing our tasks through to the end.
Surely the most common reason to procrastinate is a lack of motivation. If we were motivated (or, instead of “motivated”, use the word “excited”) to accomplish a task, then we’d be doing it.
Oftentimes it takes that looming deadline or some other external force to motivate us to finally take care of the task. Or, if it’s a task with no deadline, we may find ourselves putting it off for months, if not years. “I’ll get to it someday,” we tell ourselves.
Meanwhile, there are other things we have no trouble staying motivated to do. Such as making time to eat, sleep, be with our family, read a book, watch a movie, go to the mall, go to our job, play video games, etc. And oftentimes it is these other tasks and hobbies that we turn to when we are procrastinating. For example, instead of cleaning out the garage like we’ve been meaning to, we watch a movie. Or instead of working on the next chapter of our book, we play a video game.
How then do we beat procrastination? Is the answer to only ever work on projects we’re excited about? If you were making a living from your passion, would you never deal with procrastination again?
The adrenaline we get from fresh motivation only lasts so long. It’s awesome while it lasts, but it comes and goes. Don’t blame your tendency to procrastinate and your lack of motivation on external circumstances.
In a few weeks it will be the four-year anniversary of when I quit my job to write for a living. And just a couple days ago I was asked if I ever get tired of writing. My answer was that yes, I often get tired of writing.
When I come to the keyboard to begin writing, a million potential distractions stand at my doorstep. There are many days when I’d rather give in to one of the distractions instead of doing my writing. But I choose not to. I write when I’m tired. I write when I’m uninspired. I write when the weather outside is beautiful. I write when I’m not even sure what to write about.
I have an appointment with my keyboard every day. Every time I cancel that appointment, it becomes all the easier to cancel it again. And then again. And that, my friends, is a slippery slope.
One big myth about creativity is that it cannot be harnessed. That creative folks should float around aimlessly, waiting for the muse to show up. And while I’m all about being able to capture inspiration and ideas whenever and wherever they strike, I’m not about to let my creative life rest on the whims of the muse.
It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability.
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
Sure, inspiration often comes when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while in wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
My all-time favorite Benjamin Franklin quote is: “Little strokes fell great oaks.”
Everyone longs for major victories and big breakthroughs in their work. But those would never happen if it weren’t for the little progress we take every single day by staying committed and showing up.
In a blog post about his writing process, Seth Godin concluded with the sentiment that there is no “right way” to write. He says: “The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often.”
And, to quote Ray Bradbury: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”
Procrastination robs us of this. It keeps us from showing up every day. It tells us that instead of showing up every day, we can just cram at the last minute. It tells us that there is always tomorrow. It lies to us, saying that just because we’re ignoring this task again and again doesn’t mean we’ve quit.
The only difference between a quitter and an habitual procrastinator is that the latter is lying to herself.
If what I’m saying is true, then procrastination is perhaps the greatest enemy to producing meaningful work. Because not only does procrastination keep us from doing the work, but in so doing, it also robs us from the process of sitting down every day to be creative. It’s in the day-to-day mundane and difficult work of showing up that our ideas take shape and take flight. It’s in that place that our skills are forged bit by bit.
The path to success (both in our career and in accomplishing our life goals) is rarely glamorous. It’s usually mundane and repetitive. Underachievers will waste their time daydreaming about when their big break will come while they procrastinate doing work they don’t see as important.
Meanwhile, true achievers will do the work, day in and day out, with vision and strategy. I once read that successful people don’t work harder than unsuccessful people; they work much, much harder
Procrastination left unchecked gains momentum
The longer you put something off the easier it becomes. And that unchecked procrastination bleeds over into the other areas of our life.
People who are disciplined with their finances are usually disciplined with their time and diet as well. Having structure and focus in one area of our life gives us clarity and momentum to bring structure to the other areas of our life.
Inversely, when we are unstructured and lacking discipline in one area, that lack of discipline will bleed over to other areas of our life.
Which is why procrastination is far more lethal that we think. By procrastinating, we are lying to ourselves. We say we’ll do something, but when the time comes, we don’t. We put it off.
Breaking your own commitment to yourself causes your subconscious to distrust your conscious. Our personal integrity is eroded just a little bit every time we defer a task, snooze the alarm, or cancel an appointment. Thus, making it increasingly more difficult to follow through with your self-assigned goals, plans, and tasks.
Making consistent progress on our goals is as easy (and difficult) as eating healthy, exercising, and living within our means. Anybody can do it, but most people don’t.
Regaining your personal integrity
Here is a paraphrased excerpt from a book I read years ago that changed my life. The book is by Peter J. Daniels, titled How to Be Motivated All the Time.
This is from the chapter on Deep Personal Integrity (emphasis mine):
“If you are having difficulty in staying motivated all the time, examine closely your personal integrity. Root out past and present commitments you have made and ask yourself the question, ‘Would I treat another person with the same level of integrity I display toward myself?’ My guess is that we treat other people with much more commitment and integrity!
“One of the major reasons we do not remain motivated all the time is we do not retain integrity towards ourselves in the same measure as we do towards others. Highly motivated people are those who keep commitments to others, but who also keep commitments to themselves. That is why they always look and sound so confident and why they achieve and keep on achieving.
“We are good at justifying in the moment when we don’t want to do something.
“When you make a commitment to yourself you decide on a change of attitude. In effect you announce to your whole being that you are going to do something which requires total attention and help. But if you renege on your commitment, in effect you prevent all your conscious and subconscious faculties from completing the task and render them useless. What happens then is, that next time you become excited about the possibilities of a project and make a commitment, your subconscious responses will be slightly slower and less enthusiastic than before. It is as if they remember the previous broken commitments, consider the new project may not be fulfilled and decide that full effort is not required.
“If you continually break commitments you almost bind yourself totally from completing anything because there is no track record of success in your subconscious.
“If it helps, make less commitments to yourself but follow through completely on even the most frivolous. It’s not so stupid to start by placing your shoes in exactly the same position each night without fail. Do this irrespective of what time you get home or how you feel from one day to the next. As crazy as this seems it will actually increase your sense of integrity. You will prove to yourself that you can keep a long-term commitment at the most menial level.”
The difference between motivation and work ethic
The answer for beating procrastination won’t ultimately be found by changing your external circumstances. Now, there are things you can change to help you stay focused (such as quitting the Twitter app when you’re trying to write). And there are certain distractions you can remove altogether (such as giving up television). However, these changes in and of themselves are not the ultimate answer. They can be powerful and helpful, but at the end of the day, overcoming procrastination is about building up a strong work ethic towards the tasks and projects you’re prone to put off.
Showing up every day is hard, hard work. Once the honeymoon phase of a fresh idea is over we’re faced with the reality that we have a lot of difficult and mundane, work to do. If I were to only do the work when I felt excited, then I’d have a hundred half-started projects sitting around and zero completed ones.
For me, the best part of a project is everything before and after. I love to dream and brainstorm about it. And I love it when I’m done. But the whole part in-between — the actual doing of the project — that’s hard work.
But the hard work is the only part that counts. By making a habit of showing up to do the work every day, you build a resistance to the mundaneness of it. And eventually it just becomes part of what you do every day. You don’t have waste energy thinking about if you’re going to show up or not, you just do. And,in the words of President Obama, that routinization helps you focus your decision-making energy for the work and choices that matter most.
How to overcome procrastination
With all that said, here are some ways to help overcome procrastination. Perhaps you’re a habitual procrastinator. Perhaps there’s just that one project you’ve been putting off. Or maybe it’s just various things here and there, and you want to get better at completing your tasks in a timely and disciplined manner.
If so, consider one or more of these different approaches to help overcome procrastination.
Set an appointment: Do you know when you’re next going to work on your project? You don’t find time, you make it. Set a daily or weekly appointment with yourself. Tell your spouse about it. Now, that is the time slot when you’ll work on that project. Honor that appointment just as much as you would if it were with someone else.
Plan first, act later. If you already have a time set aside for when you show up to do the work but often find that you lack inspiration when it’s time to work because each time you sit down you first have to think of what the next action step is, you’ll just get discouraged. Consider having a separate time for planning from the time when you are doing the work on a project. Come up with the ideas and action steps elsewhere and then when you sit down to do the work, you’ve already identified what you need to do.
Get accountable: Having accountability goes a long way in helping us keep our commitments. (This is why we finally stop procrastinating at the last minute, because we’re accountable to the deadline.) Some ways you can be accountable include putting yourself into a position of leadership and responsibility where others are counting on you to get the job done; get an accountability partnership where your peers are asking you about the progress you’re making; make a public commitment on your social network, blog, etc. and state what you’re doing and what the timeframe is.
Set the initial bar of quality low: Give yourself permission to produce a crappy first draft or to have a bunch of horrible ideas right off the bat. This is one of my most important “tricks” — I allow my first draft to be the child’s draft. The point is to show up and write. And then I know I can edit and iterate on my article later. But if I wait to write until I can say it just perfectly, I’ll never get it done.
Delegate or delete: If there is a task or project you’ve been continually putting off, try to delegate if you you can. Or, if it’s something you don’t have to do, consider just dropping it altogether. If it’s important, it will re-surface. And it’s better to be honest with yourself (and others) that you’re not going to get to the project than it is to keep putting it off.
Clean your workspace when you’re done: That way, when it’s next time to do the work, there are no distractions or road blocks standing in your way. You have a tidy workspace and you know what next you need to work on. Then, when you’re done working, clean up again so you’re ready for the next time.
Make a lifestyle change: Even a temporary one. Eliminate the most common distraction sinks from your life. Say to yourself: “I don’t play video games.” Or, “I don’t go to the movies.” Or, “I’m not on Facebook.” Or, “I don’t check Twitter or email before lunch.” Now stick with it.
Act fast on your ideas: Seize that initial wave of motivation and momentum. Ideas demise over time; act on them and begin iterating as fast as you can. Set milestones which can be accomplish in a week’s time or less, and work toward that goal riding the adrenaline for 5-7 days. Then, set the next milestone and repeat.
Track your small wins every day: By recognizing and logging the daily progress you’re making on your work, you’re able to see the small victories you make each day. You realize that you are making progress on meaningful work. This increases your morale and momentum — contributing to a healthy inner work life — and thus gives you a boost in your ability to be more productive and creative.
By the way, a version of this article was sent out this morning to The Fight Spot newsletter — my new, weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.
How would you define a successful creative career?
There are two important elements: creative freedom and financial stability.
So let’s define success as having the ability to do creative work we’re proud of and to keep doing that work.
Now, there is no recipe for this stuff. It’s different for each person and changes with all sorts of factors like skills, passion, and even geographic location. It important to define creative success in such a way that it doesn’t require a particular location, vocation, or paycheck.
However, there is more to it than creative freedom and financial stability. Something else is also critical to our long-term journey of doing our best creative work.
We need a healthy inner work life.
Our emotional and motivated state is just as important (if not more important) as our finances, tools, work environment, and overall creative freedom.
Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School. In 2012 she gave an excellent talk at the 99U conference. In that talk she shares about how our inner work life is what lays the foundation for being our most productive and our most creative.
When our emotional and motivated state — our inner work life — is strong and positive then we are most likely to be at our best in terms of creativity and productivity.
What drives our inner work life? Well, a lot of things. But one of the most important is making progress on meaningful work.
When we see that we are making progress — even small victories — then it strengthens our emotional and motivated state. We are happier and more motivated at work. And therfore, we are more likely to be productive and creative.
Consider the inverse. When we feel like cogs in a machine then we see our time as being spent just doing meaningless busy work and not contributing to anything worthwhile. And so we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television.
This is one reason why having an annual review for yourself (and your team / company) can be so beneficial. It reminds everyone of the goals accomplished and the projects completed. It shows that the oftentimes mundane and difficult work we do every day is actually adding up to something of value.
Coming back to Teresa Amabile, she calls this the Progress Principle. In short, making progress on meaningful work is critical to being happy, motivated, productive, and creative in our work.
And so, if progress is so important, why do we seem to celebrate only the big victories and only once or twice per year?
One of the greatest ways to recognince our progress is to celebrate all victories — big and small. And one of the best ways to celebrate and chronicle the small victories is with our own daily journal.
We often forget about our small wins after a few days or weeks. Or they quickly get buried under our never ending to-do lists. Or, if we don’t recognize and celebrate them, then they stop being “small wins” and start just being “what we should be doing anyway”.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals. As Benjamin Franklin said, it’s little strokes that fell great oaks. And so, to celebrate a big victory is actually to celebrate the summation of a thousand small victories.
At the root of most bad writing, Stephen King says you’ll find fear. It’s fear — or timidity — that holds a writer back from doing her best creative work.
Ray Bradbury admitted this outright: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
You’ll also find fear at the root of most non-writing. Shame, doubt, worry, second-guessing, and all their cousins stand guard against us when we sit down to deal with the blank page.
As someone who writes for a living, I can tell you this: anything that keeps me from writing is public enemy number one. And the one thing that most keeps me from writing is fear.
Fear works against me more than my lack of time, focus, ideas, and talent combined. Time, focus, ideas, talent — these are all quantifiable. But fear? Fear is completely irrational. You can’t argue with it, you can’t tell it to go away, you can’t schedule around it, and you can’t bribe it or distract it.
But you know what else about fear? It’s universal.
We all feel afraid and timid when facing that blank page. Look around at some of your favorite writers and creators. They are more than talented and hard working. They are brave. They’ve found a way to keep writing in the midst of their fear.
* * *
To pull the curtain back just a little, oftentimes the thing which most keeps me from writing is a fear of putting my own narcissism out on display for all to see. So often my first draft is little more than my own self-centered view of the world — a world where I sit at the center. This is not the world I am trying to build up, but when writing, how can any of us write about anything else but what we know and what we have heard? We write about what we know and what we feel. We write from our own soul and our own heart and we share what we’ve seen through our own eyes and what we’ve heard through our own ears. We write from the inside out.
Here is how I deal with my own fear, doubt, worry. When writing that first draft, it’s allowed to be as horrible and ugly and awkward and egocentric as it needs to be.
This first draft is the personal draft. It’s the crappy draft. Nothing is off limits. I can write whatever I want and say it however I want. Everything is fair game so long as it keeps the cursor moving.
When the first draft is done, then the work of editing begins. It’s time to edit not just for flow and grammar and clarity, but edit for the reader. It is time to take this story that was once built with the author at the center and to instead put the reader at the center.
When you are writing, write however you must. Don’t let fear or timidity keep you from being honest and exciting. And when you are editing, improve your words so they serve the reader. Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
There are many books, speeches, articles, sermons, quotes, and conversations which have shaped us over the years into the people we are.
We retain a limited amount information when learning something new, and our recollection and interpretation of that information gets foggier over time.
The best way to keep important information fresh and accurate is to review it regularly.
Idea: The Core Curriculum
And so, why not put together a small notebook that contains highlights and summaries from the books, speeches, articles, sermons, teachings, and other things which have most shaped us? Our own Core Curriculum.
Have it cover the most important areas of life, such as:
- Personal growth
- Spiritual foundations
- Relationships (spouse, kids, friends, peers)
- Vocational wisdom
- Living with focus and diligence
- Financial health and wisdom
- Creative inspiration
Then, once a year or so, go through the notebook. Read your summaries and highlights to stay familiar with the things that have shaped you.
Just the act of making your Core Curriculum notebook will in and of itself be an excellent way to re-learn the material. And reviewing it once a year will help keep your mind and emotions and actions on track with the values and vision you already carry.
A.K.A. The Commonplace Book
This idea isn’t entirely new. Commonplace books have been around for hundreds of years:
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.
Today, we all have Internet Communication Devices in our pockets. The need for building our own index of important facts isn’t quite so necessary because we can search for anything using just our phones.
But what is important is remembering foundational principles for how to live life and to live it well. Our values, ideals, thoughts, emotions, and habits are bombarded every day in so many different ways. Movies, commercials, TV shows, social media, and so much more tell us how we ought to live and what we should believe. Which is why our Core Curriculum notebook should be comprised of things that speak truth to who we are, who we want to be, and what we want to do.
* * *
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been building the outline of my own Core Curriculum. And I’ll be working on it for the rest of the year, no doubt. My goal is that when completed, it will take about one month for me to read through it. It’ll be something to do each January as a 31-day study guide of sorts that reminds me and inspires in the topics of spirituality, living a disciplined and productive life, marriage, fathering, creativity, work, and relationships.
As longtime readers of this site will remember, the Sweet Mac Setup interview series used to be hosted here. That was before The Sweet Setup launched a little over a year ago and took over the interviews.
The very first Sweet Mac Setup interview was with Mark Jardine on May 31, 2009.
In the fall of 2010, I “rebooted” the interview series and added in a new question:
“How does this setup help you do your best creative work?”
I wanted the interview questions to draw out more than just information about the hardware and software people were using. As a reader, I wanted to know how people’s tools were empowering them to be more creative than if they didn’t have those tools.
There were 28 Sweet Setup Interviews that asked the question about doing creative work. This morning I read through each of those interviews again. Here I want to share some of the answers from the interviews:
I like focus — simple software that doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles helps me find that focus. I like things that do very little, very well. I try to cut out distractions — Tweetdeck or Tweetie, iChat or Skype, these things distract me.
Notational Velocity is the perfect writing app. All it does is write text, and it stores everything in text files, and you can find them instantly. You don’t need to file, and you don’t need to look for things.
For me the tech I use should actually make my life easier to manage, not get in the way of the process. I am not a super geek by any stretch of the imagination, I just learn the tools I need to know to accomplish what I want to.
I love to look at the big picture whether I work at home or on-the-go, which is why I keep lots of resources available at a quick glance and why I use MacJournal. It’s the only Mac word processor I can find which lets me draft in rich text, but copy to the clipboard as the perfectly formatted, plain HTML that most CMSes want. Lots of my peers pen in HTML or Markdown, but I don’t like to look at code or URLs when I write. To me, code is code, and prose is prose. I want to draft, re-read, and continue drafting a piece as the reader will see it, watching for things like the visual flow of text and too many concurrent links that can weigh a paragraph down.
The combination of lots of display space and powerful hardware that can (most of the time) keep up with me make it easy to dig into the current endeavor. When I can comfortably view 4-6 source code files on the iMac and have my browser open on the second display, it requires me to do a lot less remembering. I don’t have to switch away from the current buffer to look up the correct parameter order for such-and-such function, I can just open it right next to where I’m working and see both side-by-side.
I liken my working style to the way my children play with toys: they don’t put away each toy as they finish playing with it (as much as I wish they would), so we have a great big cleanup party each evening where everything is organized and stowed in its right place. When I’m ready to wrap up the current day’s work, I’ll spend at least 3-4 minutes closing a dozen Safari windows, Firefox Downloads windows, Evernote notes and such. I like that I have the canvas and the horsepower to work that way without it getting bogged down or looking cluttered.
I trust it. When you’ve got a trusted system in place, your mind stops bugging you about “we ought to be doing [X]” and lets you focus its resources on the task at hand. I know that OmniFocus and the Printable CEO forms will capture anything important so that I won’t miss it. With that off my mind, I can get down to writing.
It’s a pretty time-consuming this writing novels, running two blogs while having a full-time job for a design agency business. It means I have to do things whenever and wherever I can. My setup is designed – well, it’s evolved, more accurately – to allow me to do that. It’s all about the sync.
With DropBox, Simplenote and an iPhone 4, I can access everything I need at all times. I can edit files on my work PC at lunch and know they’ll be there when I get home. I can approve comments, make notes or catch up on some reading on my phone while I’m waiting for the bus. And again, when I get home, my Mac is up-to-date.
Novel number one was written on no less than six different computers – a combination of desktop PCs, laptops and my iMac — in even more locations, using goodness knows how many USB drives for transferring and backing up.
Novel two will be written on just my future-iPad and my iMac. That says it all, really.
I’ve tried my best to surround myself with tools that help me get the job done faster. I take notes in Notational Velocity, which is connected with SimpleNote, so that I never have to save, rename, or move the files again. I keep inspiration logged in Yojimbo and Littlesnapper, both of which sync across my computers. And I try my best to master hot keys to save time and effort.
Creativity is all about reducing the distance from inspiration to retention. I might not be able to react to a moment of inspiration right away, but if I can capture it properly (via screenshot, dragging into Yojimbo, or typing the idea out) I can come back to it when I’m ready.
I believe that a setup should facilitate an efficient workflow. I’ve noticed most of my Mac-using friends utilize a one-machine setup and it meets their needs — especially when the choice is laptop while on-the-go with a Cinema Display parked at home. However, I’ve found that investing in a multi-machine setup meets the needs of my family as well as my differing job descriptions and their requirements. With cloud-based apps and syncing technology, multi-machine setups are now easy to keep cohesive and consistent day-to-day.
My main job is to find and sift through endless streams and piles of information, so being able to have 2 or 3 windows open at the same time, large enough to see a bunch of data, is why I love the big iMac so much. At Business Insider, I had a second 24-inch screen open to TweetDeck all day, but I don’t really like multi-screen setups. I’m really big on symmetry. During baseball season, sometimes I’ll prop up my iPad next to me to keep the Cubs game on, because the iOS version of MLB’s stream is better than the Flash-based web version.
Maintaining a desktop workstation with a broad range of functionality and a portable setup with a synchronized subset of tho se apps and scripts lets me work when and where I can be most productive. My creativity tends to wane the longer I sit at the desk, so being able to pick up and go somewhere (anywhere) else is often useful in finding my muse.
Part of the reason I love the Apple Bluetooth keyboards and Magic Trackpad is consistency between those work environments. My keys are always in the same place, my gestures match between machines and the overall feel is very similar between my desktop keyboards and the Air. That removes a lot of friction when switching modes and lets me concentrate on just producing.
I’m not sure my current physical setup does much for me creatively, to be honest. It’s mainly the software, and in that sense I benefit from the work other people did. Other people figured out what’s needed in a good video editor before I ever started shooting video. Other people figured out how to capture raw photo data and how to get the most from it. Other people solved a lot of technical problems for me before I even knew I had them. Because of those engineers, obstacles get out of my way and let me just concentrate on getting things done.
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Reading through the above answers, as well as all the others, I noticed a bit of a trend.
- People have specific creative goals they are trying to accomplish (write, code, photograph, edit movies, etc.), and they’ve found a combination of hardware and software that helps them facilitate those goals.
- There’s a level of comfort and frictionlessness that comes with hardware that’s the right combination of powerful and portable to do the job.
- There’s something freeing about having a clean and thoughtfully put together work space.
This is a topic I want to explore more. In fact, I plan to on today’s episode of The Weekly Briefly which I’ll be recording in a bit.
Technology often gets a bad rap as being “anti-creativity” because of issues such as the distractions of push notifications, our social network addiction, our tendency to pull out our iPhones any time we have a free moment, our overloaded inboxes, etc.
However, the ways in which technology has empowered us to do our best creative work far outnumber the ways it distracts us.
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
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Like many of you, no doubt, I spent some time thinking about personal goals and ideas for this upcoming year. The new year is always a good time to reflect, take stock of where we are, and make sure we’re still on course for where we want to be.
In a few months I will begin my 5th year of working from home and working for myself (thanks in no small part to you, dear readers). One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.
In any given day I have 2 maybe 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.
If I push my day to include more than that, I often find myself not making much progress. There is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
The workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks. I have friends who can crank out hours upon hours of productive, creative work. Alas, I’m not one of those types. And so I’m trying to let myself quit while I’m ahead and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.
Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.
I’m an advocate of productivity as much as the next guy with a blog, but over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on productivity is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being productive is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships.
Time management, GTD, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track. But they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on creativity. What do I need to do my best creative work?
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These acts are far more important than the progress I make against my to-do list.
When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.
In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”
Mann’s line carries the same truth as the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson which is at the beginning of this article. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect — we must simplify where we spend our energy.
In this new year, as our thoughts are on what we can do and what we want to do, perhaps we should first think about what we will not do. What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others?
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“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” — Henry Thoreau
In more ways than one, I grew up in a fussy coffee home. My parents didn’t want me drinking coffee until I was 16 because they were concerned the caffeine would stunt my growth. Who knows.
My home was also fussy about coffee because my dad only ever brewed with a french press. I grew up thinking that brewing and drinking coffee was a special thing. I still think that.
I’m now 33, and have more than made up for the cups of coffee I missed out on the first half of my life. In my kitchen we have a cupboard dedicated entirely to coffee contraptions: a Mokapot; a stovetop espresso maker; an Espro brand french press, a classic Bodum french press, and a single-serving french press; a vacuum siphon coffee maker; two different styles of V60; the Clever Dripper; a Kalita Wave; an Able Kone system; and, of course, the AeroPress.
They’re all great — each one is unique in its own way and brew method. The vacuum siphon pot is a lot of fun to use on special occasions; the Espro makes a large pot of coffee for guests; Able’s Kone Brewing System looks cool; etc.
But the AeroPress is by far and away my favorite. And I know I’m not alone here.
The AeroPress has become this sort of cult classic, popular geeky way to brew coffee. Everyone with a Twitter account recommends it. There’s even an AeroPress world championship competition. And yet, while you can go to your local hipster coffee shop and buy a french press or a pourover, you’d be hard pressed to find a shop that sells (much less even uses) the AeroPress.
So for something that isn’t found in mainstream coffee shops (or even most “hipster” coffee shops), why all the hype? What makes the AeroPress so cool?
I’ve brewed over 1,000 cups of coffee with my AeroPress. Here’s what I think is the good (and the bad) of the the AeroPress.
It’s cheap to buy. If you’re getting in to fussy coffee (or if you lose or demolish your AeroPress), a brand new one is just $25.
It’s cheap to use. For one, filters are super cheap — a year’s supply of paper filters cost just $4. And secondly, most AeroPress brew methods call for just 16-18g of coffee to brew a cup. There is very little waste.
Clean-up is easy. The AeroPress basically cleans itself as you use it. When you’re done brewing a cup, you twist off the cap and pop the puck into the trash. Then rinse and let dry. (Though I will say that I don’t think clean AeroPress cleanup up is quite as easy as with the V60. With the V60 you just toss the filter with grounds into the trash and then rinse the thing out.)
The AeroPress is easy to use when you’re away from your nerdy home coffee tools. The markings on the side of the AeroPress are helpful for measuring out coffee and water. Obviously you won’t need the markings if you’re using a scale to measure. But I take my AeroPress camping and on vacation, so I’ll pre-grind some coffee to take with me, and I know just how much water to add to make a great cup of coffee without having to guess or eyeball it.
These are things you probably already know about. What really makes the AeroPress such a great coffee maker is just how versatile it is. There are a lot of ways you can use it.
For my cupboardfull of aforementioned coffee brewing contraptions, each one has only one best way to brew coffee. The AeroPress has at least three different ways to brew coffee: espresso-like, pourover-esque, and french press-ish. Each way is completely legitimate and delicious.
Now, the AeroPress does have some cons of its own. As I mentioned above, it’s not quite as easy to clean as the V60. Also, the AeroPress can’t brew a big pot of coffee — for that, I use my Espro Press (the Chemex is also a fine choice).
In short, the AeroPress hype is real. If you like variety then the AeroPress lets you mix it up. If you mostly prefer this or that type of coffee, you can find a great way to brew it with the AeroPress. Regardless of the coffee beans or the style of coffee you prefer, there’s a good way to brew it with the AeroPress.
I love this game. Not only is it absolutely fantastic and fun, but it’s so delightfully designed for the iPhone.
To celebrate, here’s some Threes-related trivia and tips that will make you a skilled master in no time:
Did you know the game’s developers spent an entire year trying variations on the artwork and gameplay before finally settling on this simplified version that takes just a minute to learn?
Some more tips for playing Threes, including how new tiles are dealt onto the board.
The way scoring works in Threes, things go up exponentially as you’re able to get higher-numbered tiles.
Then we can get better at it.
We can learn to throw a baseball, to drive a car, and to build a website. So why not also learn to be diligent? Focus, self-control, time management, money management, integrity, creative output, communication skills. These aren’t personality traits, they’re skills we learn.
And just like with any skill, practice is how we get better.
Everyone knows that practicing on the ball field is how to get better at a sport. And the more time we spend in a field of study the more we will learn and grow.
Yet how many of us have settled with the feeling that we are just bad at getting things done? That we are not good at focusing? That distractions are going to get the best of us? That our best creative work is behind us? That’s bullarky. Don’t give up so easily.
Every day, the blank page is your batting practice. You’re not here because you’ve arrived, nor because you’re a superhero of focus and creative output. No, you’re here because you love it and you want to get better. Learn a little about yourself and how you work, find something small you can do to get better, and then add that to tomorrow’s practice.
It was the middle of March that I began my first Baron Fig notebook. About 255 days later, I’ve now hit the end of its 192 pages. About one page every 32 hours.
I ordered the Dot Grid, of course. As water tends to flow downward, I tend to choose black when buying gadgets, devices, and cars and I choose grid when buying notebooks.
The design of a Baron Fig notebook itself is full of character. The yellow ribbon and the grey cloth cover are both unique and friendly. The binding is of the upmost quality. And the notebook is sized to the exact dimensions of an iPad mini. Making it an ideal analog sidekick to the mostly-digital worker.
There are flaws to the notebook. For example, the cover doesn’t lay flat when closed. And I had to take a lighter to tend of the ribbon because it was fraying. Yet, after 9 months of use, these flaws are not points of frustration. Rather, they’ve become endearing shortcomings. Much like the flaws found in ourselves and in our friends — these are no longer flaws, they are quirks we’ve come to love.
I’ve owned and used many different journals and notebooks over the years. I have a growing collection of Field Notes which I don’t even use, but love to collect. My first foray into the world of “GTD” was my own version of a Hipster PDA (remember the Hipster PDA?). Mine was a pocket-sized Moleskine, with a few sticky-notes for tabs.
The Baron Fig may be my favorite notebook I’ve ever used. If I’m at my desk, it’s at my desk. I’ve taken it with me on many trips this year — traveling to WWDC in San Francisco; a family vacation to Colorado in August; Portland for XOXO; Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And it’s been to just about every (good) coffee shop in the greater Kansas City area.
As may be evident with my aforementioned collection of mint-condition Field Notes, I often self-sabotage my own notebook usage. A brand new notebook is too nice to be used. Paper is so full of character. It’s tactile. Real. Fragile. Permanent and impermanent at the same time. It just begs to be used for something awesome. And I never feel that my silly ideas and temporary to-do lists qualify. But if not those, then what?
My Baron Fig and I made a pact. I would use it for the most mundane, menial, impermanent things I could think of. And if I ruined this book by filling it with nothing of consequence, then I would order another to sit on the shelf and collect dust as it waited patiently for something more historic and epic.
But the truth is, when it comes to using our everyday notebooks, quality is found in quantity; meaning in the mundane.
As I thumb through the pages of my spent Baron Fig, the early pages reveal tasks both accomplished and unacomplished. The very first to-do item is a reminder to buy a screen protector for my then-new Olympus E-M10 (something I never did get around to doing until many months later). A few pages further I find my review notes for the Flickr iPhone app which came out in March.
Further in I continue to find scattered notes, ideas, and sketches for the big update to Delight is in the Details that I shipped a few months ago. I also find outlines for reviews I was working on and have since published, notes for the book I’m writing now, budgeting math, and more.
Since I started this notebook, my wife and I celebrated our 9-year anniversary as well as each of our birthdays; my youngest son turned one; a huge re-design to Tools & Toys was concieved, built, and launched; and I wrote and shipped a significant update to my book, Delight is in the Details.
The two biggest trends found in my notebook are regarding my daily tasks and my podcasts. I often write down the talking points and outlines for my Shawn Today and The Weekly Briefly podcasts. And the vast majority of pages are filled with my daily action items and schedule.
According to my own handwriting, it was on May 6 that I adopted a much more analog approach to my tasks and routine. It was then that I began writing down my “big three” projects for the day along with any additional admin tasks, and then scheduling time for those things to get done during the day. For most days from May until October I did this. I would sit down with OmniFocus on my iPad and I would review through the items which were due, and I’d transfer things out of OmniFocus and in to my Baron Fig.
I’ve slowly moved away from this routine over the past month or so since I re-vamped my usage of OmniFocus to make better use of due dates and flags. However, there is something awesome about having 255 days worth of crossed-off to-do items, notes, and the like. And the fear of losing this ability to flip back through the pages is one thing that keeps me tethered to the analog.
As interesting as all of the text in this notebook is, aside from what’s written down on the most recent 8 or 9 pages, I’m not sure if anything is still needed. My Baron Fig is has 192 some odd pages of nothing in particular. And yet, in aggregate, it’s everything. In here are the footprints of my life from the Spring to the Fall of 2014.
Comparing the old notebook to the new one, I am impressed with how well it has worn. There are a few scuffs and stains on the old cover, but it’s not dramatic.
As I open up my new notebook, the binding cracks and stretches. It’s now ready to get to work. This new one will probably see me through to next summer, sometime around my 34th birthday. What will be done between now and then?